Classic Chicago Magazine
The Great Lakes form the largest freshwater system on Earth, providing drinking water to 42 million people. With 4,530 miles of U.S. shoreline, America’s inland coast is also its longest. The lakes are home to a vibrant local economy of tourism, recreation, and industry. Fishing alone supports a $7 billion economy, and the lakes form rich ecosystems of fish, birds, and other species.
Despite all of their power, majesty, and importance, the Great Lakes are not impervious to harm. In the past, they have been put under tremendous strain and mistreated for short-term economic gain. But today, we know that healthy lakes mean healthy communities and healthy economies. Today, the lakes are facing new challenges from pollution to climate change, but Midwestern communities are finding creative ways to clean up old pollution, build resilient infrastructure, and create jobs in the green economy.
ELPC is a watchdog for the Great Lakes, keeping an eye on major facilities and holding the EPA accountable for monitoring and enforcement in Region 5. For example, ELPC and allies recently reached a consent decree with the Cleveland-Cliffs steel mill in Burns Harbor Indiana, formerly owned by ArcelorMittal. We filed suit after finding over a hundred Clean Water Act permit violations affecting Lake Michigan, including discharges for ammonia and cyanide that killed thousands of fish and shut down beaches in the Indiana Dunes National Park in 2019. Now the company will have to fix equipment and serious operational deficiencies, pay a $3 million civil penalty, and create environmentally beneficial projects, including donating 127 acres to be cleaned up and added to the Indiana Dunes National Park. Learn more about our watchdog work to protect this area in our Northwest Indiana Protector Project.
In the summer of 2014, Toledo’s drinking water supply to nearly half a million people was shut down for 72 hours, crippled by deadly microcystin bacteria. The green clouds of harmful algae plaguing Lake Erie in recent years are fueled by phosphorus pollution from the growing number of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the Maumee river watershed. But this issue extends far beyond Ohio, as CAFO pollution fuels toxic algae in several states across the Midwest. ELPC has been monitoring CAFO pollution, fighting in the courts to hold pollution control agencies accountable, and pursuing stronger policies to protect safe, clean water in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa.
The Great Lakes face many challenges, with outdated infrastructure, threats of invasive species, and eroding habitat. Since GLRI was instituted in 2010, a key study showed that each dollar spent in restoration nets $3.35 in additional economic activity through 2036. Yet Republicans have proposed zeroing-out or cutting GLRI funding multiple times. Thanks to ELPC’s vocal support and our Midwestern allies, Congress has rejected these presidential cuts and reauthorized critical Great Lakes funding each year.
Under the Straits of Mackinac lies a ticking time bomb. The 60+ year old Enbridge Line 5 carries over 20 million gallons of oil every day along the lakebed between Lakes Michigan and Huron. A rupture could impair the drinking water of millions. We are working with a regional coalition to remove the pipeline or hold Enbridge accountable for spills. ELPC is fighting to save the Midwest’s precious waterways and protect the taxpayers from funding polluters’ cleanup.
Climate change is already warming the Midwest faster than the rest of the nation, exacerbating toxic algae, eroding shoreline communities, and causing many other impacts. ELPC is working to amplify the science, including putting together a state-of-the-science report assessing climate risks around the Great Lakes, by experts from the region. We are also advocating for toxic cleanup and green infrastructure to build resilient communities, while working to shift the Midwest to cleaner transportation and energy solutions. Taking action on climate change is essential for the long-term health and economic strength of our region.
Detrimental species like bighead & silver carp have come to dominate streams along the southern Mississippi watershed, but we can stop them from reaching the Great Lakes if we act now. ELPC is working with colleagues to ensure federal and state funds are invested in infrastructure to prevent invasive species moving up the Illinois River.