Make the Great Lakes Sick Again

A map depicting the pollution stretch index of each of the Great Lakes. Via Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic.

A long time ago, Jesus and Ronald Reagan took some time off from cracking the skulls of petulant Berkeley protestors to write the Christian Bible. After receiving divine inspiration from the prophets in the oil, gas, and coal industries, Reagan wrote the now famous verse in Genesis 1:26: “Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth.”

Ever since that sacred meeting between The Gipper and Hey-Zeus, the unofficial Republican platform has loosely revolved around the Dominion Mandate, which supposedly gives man (and maybe woman, if she asks politely and still has supper ready) the right to exercise dominion over the earth and plunder its natural resources at will for the glory of God and Exxon Mobile. Of course, not all Christians subscribe to this hollow interpretation of Scripture, and not everyone who wants to defile the natural world is a Christian. Consider President (“I got 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton”) Trump.

Michigan Live reports that the Trump Administration plans to cut funds allotted to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for protecting and monitoring the Great Lakes. This sneaky little development is part of Trump’s overall plan to effectively declaw the EPA, which His Orangeness has called a “job killer.” This claim is demonstrably false, but Trump has never been big on factual information. The Trump budget is especially insidious because it would more or less destroy the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) by cutting off its funds. Launched in 2010, the GLRI is the largest investment in Great Lakes ecological health in two decades. Via cooperation from numerous federal agencies, the GLRI strategically targets threats such as toxic runoffs, invasive species like the round goby and zebra mussels, habitat and species destruction, and the pollution of watersheds. Some of the GLRI projects the EPA has funded include the Fish Monitoring and Surveillance Program, Assessments of Healthy Consumption of Great Lakes Fish, Habitat Restoration in Niagara, Invasive Species Control and Monitoring, and cleanups in Great Lakes waterways like the Detroit and Cuyahoga Rivers.

As this 1968 cartoon depicts, the Great Lakes (especially Lake Erie) were very sick in the not-too-distant-past. With Trump in office, they will be sick again. Via Cleveland Historical.

The Trump Administration, however, isn’t content with merely axing funds for habitat monitoring and restoration. No, no, no, the Big Orange Goblin also has his sights on initiatives that benefit public health, because the Republican Party can’t get that warm, fuzzy feeling unless they’re quantifiably accelerating human misery. As MLive’s Garret Ellison writes, the Trump budget includes “major cuts to climate change programs, restoration funding for Puget Sound and Chesapeake Bay, research into chemicals that disrupt human reproductive and developmental systems, enforcement of pollution laws and funding for Brownfield cleanups.”

And that’s not all. Trump also wants to slash funds for compliance monitoring by 10 percent. What’s “compliance monitoring,” you ask? Well, it just so happens to be how the EPA monitors and ensures the safety of drinking water systems. This matters because over 35 million people get their drinking water from the Great Lakes. That includes 24 million people in the U.S. and 9.8 million in Canada. Now, maybe you think that the government shouldn’t play a role in ensuring the safety of drinking water, but that’s because you’re an idiot.

Of course, none of this news pertaining to the Trump budget is particularly surprising. Conservatism (some important exceptions notwithstanding) is hostile to the idea that the health of the natural environment is inextricably linked to the health of human populations, despite the mountains of scientific data that show how nature benefits public health.

As the American Public Health Association (APHA) notes, “natural elements that promote well-being” such as trees, vegetation, biodiversity, bodies of water, parks and natural playscapes, and gardens lead to “lower levels of mortality and illness, higher levels of outdoor physical activity, restoration from stress, a greater sense of well-being, and greater social capital.” In addition to providing water and food sources for millions of people, the Great Lakes and their tributaries provide countless recreational benefits in the form of sport fishing, boating, hiking, bird watching, swimming, and beach use. These are the types of activities that bond human beings to the natural world, of which they’re a part. What our society sheepishly labels nature “recreation” is actually “the ultimate foundations of life and health,” and it shouldn’t be sacrificed in the name of capitalism’s amoral rent seeking.

Runoff from the polluted Cuyahoga River spills into polluted Lake Erie in this 1966 photo. Via Cleveland Historical.

Which brings us back to Trump and the Republican Party. In addition to Trump’s slaughtering of EPA funding for Great Lakes preservation, a ball of congressional toxic sludge named Matt Gaetz, R-Florida (of course) has introduced a bill to abolish the EPA altogether. Oh, and then there’s Scott Pruitt. President (“I got 3 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton”) Trump picked Pruitt as the new head of the EPA. Pruitt has long been hostile to both the agency he’s now leading and to the overall idea of protecting the environment. As attorney general for Oklahoma’s ultra-polluting agricultural industries, Pruitt fought to get Big Poultry off the hook for dumping tons of manure into the state’s waterways. That’s right, he literally defended shit. Pruitt is also a climate change denier. As is the case with Trump’s other picks to head federal agencies, he wants to destroy the agency he now leads. Employees within the EPA have a duty to make Pruitt’s tenure a categorical failure.

The moral impetus for the existence of the Environmental Protection Agency is to challenge the notion that the capitalist profit motive must be hostile to, and can’t be reconciled with, the need to protect the natural world for the future benefit of all life on planet earth. While it isn’t just conservatives who hold the latter view, they are nonetheless its most vociferous proponents. This false binary — between the needs of profit and the needs of the general welfare — colors all facets of modern conservatism, including the Trump Administration’s agenda.

Take the issue of regulations, not just pertaining to the environment, but any regulations enacted to prevent the myopic greed of corporate interests from undermining public health. “Regulations” are not some abstract manifestation of the evils of “big government;” rather, they’re concrete attempts to protect people and the environment from capitalism’s worst excesses.

But conservatives don’t see regulations this way. As the New York Times reports, the Trump Administration plans to slash regulations that protect life from capitalist predation. Big banks like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan will no longer be punished for wringing extra cash out of customers in order to cover losses from their shady, high-risk trades; hunters will once again be allowed to use lead-based bullets that poison wildlife, and telecommunications conglomerates like At&T and Verizon will no longer have to protect their customers’ confidential financial data from hackers. Wherever there are rules enacted to protect people and animals from unnecessary harm in the name of “profit,” you can rest assured that conservatism will be there to justify that harm.

Scott Pruitt, the new head of the EPA who doesn’t believe in climate change.

The Times notes how Trump’s slashing of regulations comes at the direct behest of industry lobbyists, who argue that slashing regulations “will unleash economic growth.” There is no greater example of the false binary that positions profit as the enemy of the general welfare than conservatives’ insistence that “economic growth” (which need not extend beyond the offices of CEOs and their shareholders) precludes preserving the natural world and protecting public health. Yes, sometimes regulations can be misguided, but such mistakes don’t justify obliterating the overall moral imperative to regulate capitalism. The constitutional duty of government is to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Which brings us back to the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes are still sick, but they used to be a whole lot sicker. By the mid-20th century, decades of industrial pollution had turned the lakes into gigantic toxic swamps. Lake Erie in particular stood out for its level of obscene toxicity, as steel and other heavy industries in cities like Cleveland, Toledo, Erie, and others wantonly discharged pollutants into the lake’s waters. In addition to industrial pollution, waste from Cleveland’s sewer system fouled up the lake further. These pollutants exploded the levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in the lake, which in turn contributed to rampant eutrophication (excessive richness of nutrients in the water) that spurred massive algae blooms. The algae sucked oxygen from the water, causing large-scale die-offs of native fish species such as perch, walleye, lake trout, and shad. Throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, Erie’s beaches became mass fish graveyards, their fetid stench competing with the smog and toxic fumes that suffocated Cleveland’s air. Even today, fish die offs are still common along Lake Erie’s Shores.

Dead gizzard shad litter Lake Erie’s waters along East 22nd Street in Cleveland, Ohio in this November, 1980 photograph. Via The Cleveland Memory Project.

Lake Erie was so polluted that in July 1965, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (DHEW), which studied pollution in the days before the EPA, released its sobering Report on Pollution of Lake Erie and its Tributaries. The report bluntly declared that “Lake Erie and its tributaries are polluted. The main body of the lake has deteriorated in quality at a rate many times greater than its normal aging processes, due to inputs of pollution resulting from the activities of man.” The DHEW report identified pollutants such as “sewage and industrial wastes, oils, silts, sediment, floating solids and nutrients (phosphates and nitrates)” — all of which caused “significant damage to recreation, commercial fishing, sport fishing, navigation, water supply, and esthetic values.”

You didn’t need to work for a federal agency, however, to understand how fetid Lake Erie had become by the late 60s. The June 20, 1965 issue of the Chicago Tribune, for example, stated that Lake Erie suffered from “Illness diagnosed as chronic,” and listed the numerous ways that pollution had affected the lake. “A cancer-like runaway growth of algae…has produced great masses of seaweed” that “taint drinking water even after customary treatment,” the Tribune noted, adding that “fishing is ruined” and “beaches along the shore…have had to be closed…because of bad water.” The pollutants rotting the lake’s water ranged from “acids and oils to wood pulp and pesticides.” The Tribune concluded that, “while Lake Erie may not be ‘dying,’ it is at best ‘sick.’ Weather it can be cured is problematical.”

Perhaps no single incident better embodied Lake Erie’s sad state than June 22, 1969, when the Cuyahoga River, one of Lake Erie’s major tributaries, actually caught on fire because it was so polluted. Sparks showered by molten slag from a nearby Cleveland steel mill caused the fire. Crews extinguished the blaze within a few minutes, but the site of burning water became a catalyst for the burgeoning environmental movement and directly influenced the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the eventual formation of the Environmental Protection Agency under Republican (!) President Richard Nixon. The 1969 incident wasn’t even the first time the Cuyahoga River caught ablaze. The river had lit up dozens of times — and burned far longer — before the ’69 blaze, but outsized media attention made the latter “a symbol of urban pollution.”

The Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio catches fire in 1952. This was one of several blazing incidents on the river. Via The Allegheny Front.

This is the legacy — of burning rivers and fish die-offs, of algae blooms and toxic smoke, of raw sewage and mercury poisoning — that Trump and the modern conservative movement willfully downplay or ignore altogether in their ceaseless quest to strip capitalism of any and all duties it should have to the common well-being of humans and the natural environment. Thanks to the efforts of the EPA and millions of concerned citizens, the Great Lakes are much less sick than they were in the past. But these developments didn’t just happen. They were the results of a concentrated, science-based public awareness of the dangers posed by pollution.

By hoisting up a bogus choice between promoting “economic growth” or “saving the environment,” the Trump Administration and its underlying conservative ideology continue to tout a false binary that wrongly — and foolishly — assumes that we can’t reconcile environmentalism with human economic development. Don’t believe conservatives when they make this claim. They may not spiritually endorse a fundamentalist Dominion Mandate to justify capitalist exploitation over the earth, but they endorse it on a functional level just the same. The Great Lakes are a precious natural resource that must be preserved for future generations of life in its human, animal, and plant forms. Great Lakes scientists have already warned that “If We Lose The EPA, We Lose Lake Erie.” We’re not asking for a new Garden of Eden, we just want to keep the sewage out of the one we have.

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