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'Ontario's West Coast' permanently polluted
Tom Spears
The Ottawa Citizen
CREDIT: Carlo Allegri, National Post
Environmentalist Tom Adams says the Lake Huron pollution problem may be reversible.

Health officials have declared a string of beaches in a 40-kilometre stretch of Lake Huron permanently unsafe because of E. coli bacteria, making this the first new pollution "hot spot" on Canada's side of the Great Lakes in nearly 20 years.

Ten years of data show that many beaches in Huron County, south of Walkerton, are routinely unsafe for swimming because of bacterial pollution, the county's health unit says. The region markets its beaches, boating and fishing to tourists as "Ontario's West Coast."

But Statistics Canada says it also produces more manure than any other place in Canada, and much of this comes from factory farms.

"It's an embarrassment to the reputation of the province," said Ontario's environmental commissioner, Gord Miller.

He's speaking not just of the lake pollution, but of the streams that drain farmland to the lake and carry the pollution with them.

In fact, those polluted streams are the real disgrace, even though people pay more attention to public beaches, he said. "The beaches are the symptom, but the streams are the disease."

E. coli levels in a dozen small rivers and streams that drain into the lake exceeded provincial water quality guidelines by as much as 41,000 per cent, lab tests showed this summer.

Pollution problems often take time to fix, Mr. Miller noted. "What I'm upset about here is there doesn't seem to be any progress toward a solution. There doesn't seem to be any acknowledgement of a problem" by Ontario's environment or agriculture ministries.

Both Canada and the United States have an official policy that says "virtual elimination" of toxic chemicals from the lakes is of high priority, and is feasible.

Now, however, their progress against pollution has taken a large step backward.

The contamination itself isn't new, said Dr. Beth Henning, the county's medical officer of health. It's just that this is the first time officials have gone through years of data and declared some areas permanently unsafe for swimming. She said her office doesn't receive data on whether people get sick from bacteria in the water.

It's uncertain how the shoreline is faring north of the posted zone because that's a different county (Bruce) that doesn't do the same monitoring, she added.

Environmentalists say the series of "unsafe" postings are a sign of major ecological damage.

"The permanent posting is a permanent loss, but it's is also reversible," said Tom Adams of the Environmental Bureau of Investigation, which has conducted private prosecutions of several water pollution cases in Ontario.

While the bacteria are concentrated mainly near the shore and not in the whole lake, this is the most important part of the lake for many birds, small mammals, shellfish and spawning fish, he said.

"One of the basic principles of limnology (freshwater science) is that the transition zone -- the shoreline -- is the critical habitat," he said.

Pollution will affect property values, enjoyment of the lake, and aboriginal rights, he said. "This is what (U.S. Senator) Bobby Kennedy is saying all the time: The polluters are stealing from us."

Huron County permanently closed the five beaches on the urging of Michael Brodsky, formerly the chief microbiologist for Ontario's Ministry of Health and now a private consultant. Until now the beaches were posted as open or closed as bacteria levels rose and fell. But Mr. Brodsky reviewed the pollution levels and concluded the water is too often unfit to swim in at many of the beaches.

The shoreline is not entirely off-limits to swimmers. Some public beaches in the area will continue closing only when pollution is heavy. As well, the E. coli sampling doesn't cover privately owned shoreline.

Still, the news demonstrates major damage to the near-shore area of world's third-largest lake.

Local property owners have paid for a lab analysis that concludes the E. coli come from animals, not human sewage -- a hot topic in this region where of dairy farming and factory hog farms.

"I see it as a big deal ... These are extremely polluted streams, that's the problem," Mr. Miller said in an interview. "It's against the Ontario Water Resources Act and against the (federal) Fisheries Act to discharge substances that pollute the streams."

"It seems to me the obligation is on the Ministry of the Environment to have a program to be working on those streams now," he said. "They should be doing the detailed monitoring, confirming the results that are brought in by citizens at their own expense, and identifying the sources" and working with farmers to manage manure better.

"There are many streams that are polluted. We know that. There's an obligation to have a program to fix it."

He noted the province's new Nutrient Management Act requires farmers to spread manure only in dry weather, and to leave a buffer near ditches and streams. If they do, "there will not be contamination of the streams. That's the assumption of the model that they're using," Mr. Miller said.

"And so this is the test case: In Huron County, with these very high manure loads, which are the highest in the province, can the provisions of the Nutrient Management Act be brought into play? And will we see the necessary improvements" in water quality?

"It's a very profound test of the adequacy of the models" on which the new law is based.

Mr. Miller asked why the province hasn't done more to fix the problem.

The United Nations has named 2003 the International Year of Fresh Water.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2003

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