Lessons from recent history about how to clean up and protect the Greatest Lake
Most of us who live near Lake Superior develop an appreciation of this natural wonder, and we know that there is always something new to learn about it.
Nancy Langston, a resident of the rugged Keweenaw Peninsula and a professor of environmental history at Michigan Technological University, offers lessons from history about what we need to do to protect the lake today. After a glimpse of the geologic forces that created the big lake, she recounts 300 years of human history, focusing on the disturbances inflicted on the lake and its aboriginal inhabitants by industrious Europeans. She details extractions, environmental battles, and scientific learning that show how close we have come to ruining the lake. Her thesis is that the lake has healed itself from some of our depredations, and with some help from us, there is hope for further healing, even from the damages we continue to wreak today.
She touches briefly on what she calls Anishinaabe “development,” including cultivation of gardens and technologies for hunting and fishing. Then, in fascinating detail, she discusses economic, social, and scientific aspects of each of the extractive industries that flourished, for both good and ill, on Lake Superior’s shores. In the 17th century, the fur trade removed beavers in large numbers, causing the collapse of their dams, with dramatic results in the entire watershed. As Langston explains, “water that had slowly seeped down to the aquifer now rushed to Lake Superior, carrying sediments, sands, and pollutants with it.”
As the beavers were depleted in the mid-19th century, corporations turned to fishing and copper mining. Native people had long fished and mined copper in the region, but Northern Europeans had different ways of looking at land and economics which resulted in much more intensive resource exploitation. The new arrivals pushed tribal people off their lands to build large mines, which dumped about a half-million tons of waste metals into the lake by 1882. Timber harvested to fuel the smelters deforested the Keweenaw Peninsula.
Timber was coveted not only for local industry but to provide lumber for nation-building. Between 1870 and 1909, the Lake Superior region provided a third of the country’s wood, dropping to just three percent by 1939. Clear-cutting removed forest cover, contributing to erosion which muddied and warmed streams. Swamps dried up, drainage patterns changed, and loggers filled streams with sawdust.
When the trees were gone, lumber companies shifted to hawking real estate, luring settlers to the supposedly rich land that was once forest. It turned out much of the land was not suitable for agriculture, but settlers’ dogged attempts to farm led to more erosion, this time clogging streams with pesticide-laden sediments.
Pulp and paper
Beginning in the early 1900s, pulp mills dotting northwest Ontario harvested hundreds of thousands of cords of spruce and fir from public lands each year. One plant in Thunder Bay harvested 44.5 square miles of trees in one year. Dumping paper mill wastes into streams acidified the water, reduced oxygen, and added mercury, benzene, chloroform, methanol, nitrates, ammonia, and dioxins.
Early regulators relied on the concept of “assimilative capacity”—the ability of a water or land system to absorb pollutants and heal itself. But the changes wrought by beaver removal, deforestation, dam building, mining and development reduced the assimilative capacity of the systems surrounding Lake Superior. Further, the new kinds of chemical pollution from pulp mills did not break down in water, but rather concentrated as they moved up the food chain.
Although neighbors recognized and protested massive fish kills from paper mill effluents, local and state regulators were rarely able to get the industries to change. Owners claimed they could not handle the waste cost-effectively other than by dumping it into nearby streams. Research sponsored by the state of Wisconsin in 1927 indicated that holding the waste in a pond and aerating it would reduce impacts on fish, but nearly fifty years went by before the industry adopted this technology. Most pollution reductions came from new processes designed to make more money: new pulping processes that reduced fiber waste, and new products that could put formerly waste material to use.
Langston notes that “the paper and pulp industry brought three decades of economic growth that benefitted many—but certainly not all—of the people living in the Lake Superior basin. Yet the pollution legacies from that boom era have persisted far longer than the economic benefits.”
Here’s something I never knew: a Depression-era project designed to help Canada’s sagging pulp and paper industry resulted in a massive water diversion from James Bay south into Lake Superior. Paradoxically, the root problem was oversupply, but the industry staked its future on transporting wood from farther north to mills along Lake Superior. The redirected rivers were also dammed for hydro power, devastating First Nations communities which lost “shoreline, sacred sites, graves, fisheries income, and land tenure rights.”
Postwar pollution boom
In the prosperity that followed World War II, states encouraged industrial development and embraced a philosophy Langston calls “cooperative pragmatism,” hoping they could use new chemicals to clean lakes and rivers rather than requiring industries to clean up their effluent. They used copper sulfate, arsenic, DDT, and toxaphene to clean algal blooms from sewers and industrial waste, and then began using some of the same killer chemicals on unwanted fish.
Gradually science began revealing the basic falsehood of the premise that “dilution is the solution to pollution.” Researchers gained a better understanding of the complexities of lakes, the reality that air currents carried toxic chemicals long distances, and especially how toxic materials were accumulating in the tissues of animals and concentrating as they moved up the food chain. Further, the chemicals produced counter-intuitive results: when DDT killed off 95% of the spruce budworm decimating northern forests, managers cheered; but the pests that survived in small numbers had a banquet of healthy trees waiting for them the next year, creating population explosions that ultimately prolonged the outbreaks. In the 1970s defoliants were sprayed on northern forests in an attempt to “rationalize and intensify forest production.” As with the Agent Orange used in Vietnam, the defoliants were contaminated with dioxin, and in spite of public concern about GIs’ exposure in the war, forest managers continued to use the defoliants until a nine-year citizen-inspired legal battle prompted a ban on dioxin-contaminated herbicides on national forests.
According to Langston, Lake Superior is uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of these kinds of poisons. The lake has what’s called a long retention time: water and contaminants that enter the lake can remain there for nearly 200 years. Further, the nearshore waters warm more quickly than the deep water, which creates a thermal bar that concentrates pollutants near the shore, where fish spawn and people get their drinking water.
After World War II used up most of the Lake Superior region’s rich natural iron ore deposits, switching to lower-grade taconite required not only new technologies but tax breaks for the industry. In the 1940s, the Minnesota legislature reduced property taxes and gave the power of eminent domain to mining companies. People living near mines were well acquainted with problems of dust blowing off waste dumps and possible water pollution. When they refused to sell their land for expanding mine waste storage, the companies could force them to sell through eminent domain. During the Cold War, national security concerns persuaded leaders that environmental laws needed to be relaxed to allow U.S. companies to compete with mines in other nations. Edward Davis, the University of Minnesota researcher and energetic taconite promoter—known as “Mr. Taconite”—argued that Reserve Mining should be allowed to dump its waste into Lake Superior, not because there was no alternative, but to make it easier for the company to compete. Citizens, environmental groups, sport and commercial fishing groups expressed concern about the possible effects of dumping thousands of tons of waste rock into the lake each day, but Minnesota approved the project, promising the effects would be studied and Reserve’s permits could be changed if needed.
It was almost immediately clear that the tailings were not sinking to the bottom in the immediate vicinity of the plant as Reserve and state regulators had promised, but the state granted Reserve looser permits anyway. Langston says Reserve was highly selective in sharing data with the state, and “the state was careful not to question Reserve too closely,” lest it be forced to admit that cooperative pragmatism was not working.
Gradually, the federal government began to play a stronger role in pollution cases. If pollution crossed state boundaries, the new Federal Water Pollution Control Administration could intervene. A detailed report by the Interior Department’s Charles Stoddard showed that the tailings were carrying tons of toxic metals and phosphorus into the lake every day, and that they were drifting at least as far as Wisconsin. Reserve attacked the report and its author; Minnesota politicians including the region’s Congressman, John Blatnik, used Reserve’s talking points to discredit the report.
When the Save Lake Superior Association’s Arlene Lehto sounded the alarm that the tailings contained what were described as “asbestos-like particles,” these mineral fragments were found in the drinking water supplies of Duluth and other cities along the shore, raising public health concerns. The Sierra Club filed suit to force the state to hold permit revocation hearings. Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson and other Wisconsin officials pressured the federal government to act. A series of enforcement conferences led to a federal lawsuit to force Reserve to abate its pollution. U.S. District Court Judge Miles Lord was outraged by Reserve’s intransigence, by its hiding of evidence, and in particular by its threat to close the plant if it were forced to change its disposal site. “The court will have no part of this form of economic blackmail,” Lord raged.
Ultimately Reserve was forced to dump its wastes inland, but we’ll never know whether that would have happened if the threat to human health had not been discovered. Although Langston does not draw a parallel to more recent mining issues, I was struck by the similarity between the corporate behavior of Reserve Mining and U.S. Steel, whose giant Minntac plant has been operating on an expired permit for 25 years.
Currently, battles over mining are occurring in Minnesota over copper-nickel mining, and in Wisconsin over taconite mining. Bending over backward to encourage the proposed Gogebic Taconite or GTAC mine in the scenic Penokee Mountains, in 2013 the Wisconsin legislature exempted mines from many of the state’s water quality standards and preempted the right of citizens to challenge mine permits. The huge quantities of water needed for processing could have affected the Kakagon Sloughs downstream, where the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe fiercely protected its clean water and wild rice. The fight led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right of Indian nations to set and enforce their own clean air and water standards. GTAC withdrew its permit requests in 2015.
As Langston notes: “The Indigenous people of the region have federally protected rights to exert significant control over such developments—rights that cannot be eliminated by any state government. As a result, the Anishinaabe have become central to the attempts to sustain and protect these areas. Indigenous peoples of North America, and the globe, offer an alternative vision of the future—and on ceded territories, they have critical legal tools and strategies for protecting clean water and healthy watersheds.”
Dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxaphene, and other long-lasting contaminants present challenges today. Scientists worry especially about the complex and largely unknown interactions among the many toxic materials found in the lake.
Toxic pollution was a key target of a groundbreaking treaty signed by the U.S. and Canada in 1972. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement called on both nations to clean up existing pollution and prevent new contamination. Ever since, the International Joint Commission (IJC), which studies and regulates transboundary waters, has produced reports bristling with frustration at the failures of both nations to follow through. Industry claimed it needed to protect trade secrets and refused to report the contents of their releases. Amendments to the Agreement required the nations to recruit citizen committees to address pollution hotspots, an approach seen as fostering experimental, flexible, locally-designed solutions. But after a few years of slow progress, the IJC reported these voluntary efforts were not working, and a “strong governmental presence” was needed.
The IJC has called for a precautionary approach—manufacturers should seek approval before discharging materials into the environment, rather than forcing communities to prove pollution after the fact—and has named Lake Superior as a Zero Discharge Demonstration Zone. (Langston served on the Binational Forum overseeing this effort for several years.) But the nations have continued to rely on voluntary measures. As she sees it, the IJC has apparently given up trying to get the two nations to reduce toxic pollution: since 2002, its reports have largely sidelined toxics and moved on to other issues.
According to Langston, regulators on both sides of the border are risk-averse, always willing to call for more study rather than risking political retaliation by setting strict regulations. The complexities of ecosystems are part of the problem: “There is always another stressor to model, another interconnection to study, which means that trying to ban any particular contaminant is rarely worth the political effort,” Langston explains.
Climate change introduces yet another set of challenges, and researchers say Lake Superior is one of the fastest-warming lakes on the planet. But Langston reminds us that restoring forests and other natural systems can help build resiliency and even the assimilative capacity (a.k.a. dilution) that can still help cleanse some pollutants.
This is only a sampling of the many issues explored in Langston’s book, which is well worth a read. Sustaining Lake Superior is thoroughly researched and well documented, passionately written and easy to read. The clarity and energy might benefit at times from less repetition and cleaner organization, but the author has managed an incredible feat in painting the complex environmental history of the lake. Sustaining Lake Superior reminds us that we have put Lake Superior through a lot in the last three hundred years, and that we must keep working to protect her, and ourselves. It is a good reminder that we can’t trust corporations to prioritize environmental health over profits, nor can we always rely on governments to protect our resources. Langston challenges us to be vigilant, voice our concerns, join with others, and sometimes be prepared to fight long battles. As Langston writes, “Lake Superior’s history teaches us that human histories are intimately linked to the watershed, and the quality of water determines the quality of life.”
Nancy Langston is professor of environmental history at Michigan Technological University and the author of three books, including Toxic Bodies. She lives on the Keweenaw Peninsula of Lake Superior.