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In The News: Eerie Contamination in The Great Lakes

Happy mid-week, ecoSPEARS readers! This week we’re getting back into the nitty-gritty of highlights in last week’s environmental news. Two of the three articles being addressed surround a massive source of (contaminated) water we’ve only touched on briefly before: The Great Lakes, which make up the largest freshwater system in the world, and the Great Lakes Basin is home to more than 30 million people. The Great Lakes account for 84% of North America’s and 21% of the entire world’s surface freshwater. In fact, only the polar ice caps contain more surface freshwater than the Great Lakes.

The first article we’re diving into parallels a sentiment we echo consistently here at ecoSPEARS: the dangers of PCBs, their persistency in the environment and food chain, and the dangers they pose to human health and wildlife. Emily Shaw, a graduate student at Michigan Tech, spoke last week on her academic research into polychlorinated biphenyls. Shaw explained the adverse effects posed by the cancer-causing carcinogenic chemical, how its chemical nature allows it to bioaccumulate up the food chain, as well as the chemical’s presence in and effect on the Great Lakes Basin. In her research, Shaw found that certain species of fish tended to bioaccumulate PCBs in different ways than may have been previously measured, or at least in ways, “that [lead] to difference in congener body burdens but also toxicity.”

The term “congener” is used to describe a single PCB molecule, or a single formation thereof. Keep in mind that PCBs are able to form hundreds of different compound structures while retaining the same chemical properties, hence the term “poly­-chlorinated biphenyls.”

A diagram showcasing bioaccumulation of PCBs through the food chain in Smallmouth bass. (source:

Shaw’s research showed that some species of fish, including Smallmouth bass, showed noticeably higher PCBs despite not being tracked in areas of the Great Lakes of high concern for PCB contamination. Carp and walleye fish also exhibited levels of PCBs well above EPA’s guidelines for toxicity. Shaw’s findings could be a key tracer to multiple sources of contamination, not only in our food, but in the food sources for fish species living in and around the Great Lakes.

Our second Great Lakes article for this week comes to us from Ohio. Following the prior weeks’ news of Ohio’s Attorney General Mike DeWine suing Monsanto for PCB cleanup liability, the Ohio EPA has declared the western portion of Lake Erie “impaired” in an announcement released last Thursday. The announcement is most likely regarding green algae contamination in Lake Erie – an issue which caused a ban on drinking water in Toledo, OH for three days in 2014. The “impaired” status of western portions of Lake Erie, which extend from the Ohio/Michigan border to Kelly’s Island, will enact stricter agricultural regulations along portions of the lake basin and agricultural use of the lake’s water.

“But wait,” you ask, “what’s the deal with green algae being such a negative thing?” Well, readers, we’re glad you asked. The green algae reference in this article is in regard to algae blooms, such as the one seen below.

Green algae blooms in Lake Erie can potentially release toxic bacteria into drinking and agricultural water. (source: Landsat 8/NYT).

Lake Erie’s algae blooms are likely to contain cyanobacteria which is known to produce toxic byproducts under specific circumstances and has been known to release toxic microcystin in Lake Erie in the past – hence the shutdown on drinking water for three days in 2014.

Environmentalist groups in the Toledo region called the “impaired” status by the EPA a win as it is more likely to draw attention to environmental issues in the region which is heavily used for agricultural farmland. Many speculate heavy fertilizer use in the past is a contributor to the green algae in Lake Erie.

Onto the final article being covered this week, a company has challenged an EPA cleanup order for a Colorado Superfund site, claiming they are not liable for toxic contamination at the site – or at least not to the extent they are being cited for. Sunnyside Gold Corp. asked for a conference with EPA so the agency might be able to revoke or at least modify the order, however any such meeting has yet to be scheduled.

Leaks at a South Africa mine in 2016 caused exposure of heavy metals to locals via contaminated ground and surface water. (source: Environment News South Africa)

The article claims that a spill of toxic groundwater in 2015 by EPA-led contractors triggered pollution through rivers in Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. The spill occurred at Gold King Mine, part of the Bonita Peak Mining District in Colorado. While Sunnyside holds no ownership of the Gold King Mine, the company does own land within surrounding areas which altogether form a Superfund site. As such, Sunnyside says, they are being held liable for cleanup they did not cause. Meanwhile, the EPA claims that work done in the past by Sunnyside caused the spill of toxic groundwater to spread throughout surrounding rivers and waters.

That’s all for this week, readers! Stay tuned into our blog for our news highlights and post next week as our team readies for our trip to Palm Springs, CA for the Battelle Chlorinated Conference.

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For more information on some of the agencies and organizations mentioned in the article, please click here:

Great Lakes National Programs Office (GLNPO)


Battelle Chlorinated Conference

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