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Thom Cmar’s Blog

Off to Cleveland Today to Testify for Great Lakes and Oceans

Thom Cmar

Posted October 29, 2009

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I'm off to Cleveland this morning to testify at the Great Lakes regional meeting of the National Ocean Policy Task Force.  As a native Ohioan, I am excited to return to my home state and take this important opportunity to speak in favor of a national policy that the Obama Administration is creating to ensure protection of the Great Lakes ecosystem within a federal framework that coordinates efforts to restore, maintain, and protect our oceans and coastal waters.  A national policy is necessary because, right now, our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes are governed by more than 140 laws and 20 different agencies, each with different goals and often conflicting mandates.  President Obama is showing historic leadership to create the kind of bedrock environmental policy necessary to help change this.

Efforts have long been underway here in the Great Lakes region to overcome these challenges.  The Great Lakes are a vast and unique freshwater ecosystem representing 95% of the standing freshwater in the U.S. - and 20% of the world's total - that spans two countries, eight states, and two Canadian provinces.  Despite this vastness, less than 1% of Great Lakes water is considered "renewable" - i.e., recharged by rainwater, snowfall, or groundwater every year.  Yet as a resource, the Great Lakes provide drinking water for over 40 million people, and contribute billions of dollars a year to our economy through commercial fishing, recreation, and many other industries.  Working together is not optional for us.  Our health and economy depend on the Great Lakes.

And in recent years, we as a community have worked together and made significant progress toward restoring, maintaining, and protecting the Great Lakes:

  • The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration has brought together state and federal agencies with tribal entities, local governments, industry and agriculture, and the public to create a planning structure and blueprint for Great Lakes restoration.
  • The Great Lakes Compact has brought together all 8 states and 2 provinces to establish a binding framework that will prevent overuse of Great Lakes water.
  • The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative represents an unprecedented commitment of federal resources by the Obama Administration that will allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to accelerate implementation of a comprehensive, science-based restoration plan.

Despite these successes, the Great Lakes still face grave threats that need to be addressed in any national policy.  Like the other coasts, the Great Lakes are under attack from invasive species, many of which are introduced or spread from the ballast tanks of ships.  As of 2006, a new invasive species was being discovered in the Great Lakes every 7 months!  Sewer overflows from old infrastructure every year close beaches around the country and make people sick.  Excess nitrogen and phosphorus runs off from farm fields and city streets and lawns causing algal blooms and dead zones.  Toxic contaminants - the legacy of the Great Lakes' industrial past - sit mixed with sediment in the bottom of Great Lakes rivers and harbors as they do on in coastal waters nationwide.  Pollution from dirty coal plants and refining dirty tar sands oil adds more mercury and other heavy metals into our waters every year.  And climate change threatens to put the entire ecosystem under stress, shifting temperatures to a Southern climate, creating droughts, and lowering lake levels.

We need a national policy that allows the federal government to take quick and effective action to address these problems, as well as new problems as they emerge. 

We were also pleased to see the report include a special area of emphasis on water quality and sustainable practices on land.  We hope that this plan will recommend:

  • Ballast water treatment standards as tough as those on the books in California and New York adopted nationwide, and ships required to install treatment technology as soon as possible, to prevent new invasive species;
  • Remediation of toxic sediments from Great Lakes rivers and harbors;
  • Vigorous enforcement of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, to prevent new excess pollution from destroying any progress made and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to sustainable levels;
  • Modernization of water infrastructure; and
  • Restoration of wetlands and habitats, buffer strips next to farm fields, and rain gardens next to highways, to keep excess nutrients from polluting our waterways. 

The longer we wait to take action, the more complicated and expensive the problems become.

The Great Lakes are a vital resource in the heart of America, and they need to be at the heart of a new national policy that protects all of our waters - and the food, jobs, energy, and recreation that they provide.


Tell the President you support a national policy to protect our Great Lakes, and our oceans, here:


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Don MitchelOct 30 2009 08:26 AM

Dear sirs , Congress has again failed to address ballast water, we have no choice but to try and convince the Coast Guard that the future health and environmental concerns our country will experience in the future, will now lie in the time line for the rules and regulations, they will decide are adequate to govern private enterprise. With the Coast Guard being the only entity in the country with any infrastructure close to enforcement of any sort of regulations, their regulations will appease a lot of people who wish to see anything done after decades of useless patch work regulations. It is unfortunate that so many states have spent so much money on their own laws and regulations. Now the question is will the Coast Guard be enthusiastic about enforcing them, when they have their own agenda? Please ask your elected officials and those that have worked on their states laws, as private citizens to urge the Coast Guard to enact the type of legislation so many states have spent their tax money on. If The Coast Guards purposed regulations, are not strong enough, they will be next to impossible to change in the coming decades of their current proposals. Cognizant, that the Senate wishes ballast water, considered a states rights issue, President Obama, despite the campaign promises to go green, has yet to address this issue with Congress. With talk of the Senate examining the Law of the Sea Treaty these regulations will have very long term consequences for the world’s health and environment as new uses for our oceans are implemented. Mining, new Arctic shipping routes, gas and oil exploration, etc. are all capable of releasing new microbes into the water. Without strong new regulations, the Coast Guards current purposed regulations tend to mirror those of the IMO. (an organization primarily made up from foreign sea captains, foreign companies, and foreign countries, with vested economic interest) rather than legislation already crafted by our elected officials in the House of Representatives. While searching the White House web site for “Ballast Water” I was directed to the military’s venue to comment on purposed ballast water regulations. This seems to indicate to me that despite reportedly showing support for ballast water regulations being considered while the president was a Senator in the 110th Congress, he is now happy to allow the military to decide, on their own, what their mission should be, instead of our elected officials.
Don Mitchel

Thom CmarOct 30 2009 01:53 PM

Thank you for your comment. NRDC is heavily involved in the ballast water debate that's playing out both at the federal level and in the Great Lakes states.

The Coast Guard and EPA need to work together closely to create a coherent federal program for regulating ballast water that utilizes both the Coast Guard’s expertise in vessels and EPA’s expertise in protecting water quality. Any federal program that is created must engage both agencies and fully comply with both the National Invasive Species Act and the Clean Water Act. Only then will the Federal Government be able to live up to its responsibilities to protect our waters from invasive species.

I plan to discuss the Coast Guard's proposed rule in greater detail in a future post. The comment period for the Coast Guard's proposal is currently open until December 4. I encourage anyone who's interested in protecting the Great Lakes from invasive species to share their views with the Coast Guard.

Don MitchelNov 1 2009 03:45 PM


Questions about federal policy for the Great Lakes on November 6, 2009 10:11 PM
Michael Scott of the Plain Dealer asks if the recommendations of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force will be good for the Great Lakes. An interim report it issued in September suggested the formation of a National Ocean Council....

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