This Is America: How Colonization Helped Contaminate The Great Lakes

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, before English colonists came to the American continents, European civilizations and their respective leaders were searching for the easiest and quickest route to the “New World.” While Leif Erikson had landed in present-day Canada hundreds of years beforehand, post-Renaissance Europe was fascinated with exploring and expanding what was then the known world, a fascination which was expedited by news of Columbus’s landing in North America. What followed was a rat race of colonization – one which Indigenous Americans eventually and tragically came to learn over time was not favorable of their people, their customs, or their native land.

French map of the Great Lakes Basin from 1755 showing various settlements and territories in the region.

French explorer Jacques Cartier is often credited to be the first European to explore the regions and waterways of and around the St. Lawrence River, who navigated the region for the infamous “Northwest Passage” as a shortcut for trade routes to East Asia. The natives of the area are said to have warned Cartier against traveling the upper St. Lawrence and modern-day Lake Ontario, known territory of the Iroquois natives who did not take kindly to European explorers. Fast forward some decades to the early 1600s: French navigator Samuel de Champlain led an expedition of 32 colonists to found “New France” which would eventually become the Canadian province of Quebec, of which he was made Commandant in 1611. Champlain spent his years in the region attempting to fuel the fur trade between French colonists and the local Indigenous tribes, particularly the Wyandot Ottawa who feuded with the nearby Iroquois Confederacy. Champlain’s expeditions lead him to be widely-considered as the first European to see the Great Lakes.

Champlain was wounded in 1615 during a battle between the Iroquois and a loyal band of Algonquin warriors who followed him, and after spending a year under the Algonquin’s care he returned to France only to find political turmoil in his homeland posed a threat to his New France colony. “In 1620 the king reaffirmed Champlain’s authority over Quebec but forbade his personal exploration, directing him instead to employ his talents in administrative tasks.” Despite political troubles in his native France, it isn’t so far of a stretch to assume that Champlain told the King and his Court upon his return to France of what he had seen at the Great Lakes: a horizon of freshwater seas, fertile and supple land ready for farming and colonization, and connections to Indigenous tribes friendly to French traders who could bring supplies to and from France.

A map of the United States in the 1800s, after the Revolutionary War and prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Fast forward again: this time by two centuries. English colonists have won freedom from the British Empire and establish The United States of America, claiming all land south of Canada, north of Florida, and east of the Mississippi River. American pioneers of the 19th-century adhere to “Manifest Destiny” and expand American civilization westward at a rapid pace, displacing (for lack of a better word) Native populations and establishing new cities along with hubs of industry. Many of these hubs – cities and townships – will soon explode into titanic centers of industry as coal mining, railroad, military and industrial complexes swell to sizes never seen before. The Great Lakes region along the northern border of the US became one of these hubs, and today – two centuries after that – the Great Lakes region and watershed is home to some 30 million people.

Undoubtedly, the abundance of fresh water and fertile land for agriculture led to the economic and population boom of the Great Lakes region over the past two centuries. As of 2009, the eight states in the region were home to roughly 1.5 million jobs that relied directly on the Great Lakes themselves – primarily manufacturing, agriculture, engineering, utilities & mining, and tourism. Of the eight states, Michigan boasted the lion’s share of jobs tied to the Great Lakes with over 500,000 and of the industries these jobs were tied to, manufacturing made up roughly two-thirds of Great Lakes jobs.

Two-thirds of Great Lakes jobs in Michigan, as of 2009, come from manufacturing and production industries.

Despite this seemingly healthy economic development in the region, the environmental health of the region – the Lakes in particular – has been a topic of discussion for decades. The Great Lakes watershed is a massive system of water that covers half of the United State’s northern border with Canada, leading into the St. Lawrence River waterway and down through the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Deposits of precious metals such as copper and gold in Lake Superior slapped a bullseye on the Lake for mining companies. Automobile manufacturers in the 20th-century made their home in the region introducing thousands of jobs, many of which sadly no longer exist due to financial distress of the early 21st-century and have resulted in the detriment of areas in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana as manufacturers such as General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford opted to move their headquarters elsewhere. All the while, population booms and tourism to the Great Lakes have prompted awareness alerts from environmental activists as scientific reports from agencies across the nation show similar analysis of environmental decline in the ecosystem of the region.

Thankfully, a 2005 measure spearheaded by the US National Wildlife Federation and joined by various municipalities and government officials called the “Great Lakes—St. Lawrence River Basin Sustainable Water Resources Agreement” passed to allow US and Canadian officials to collaborate ways to preserve the environmental health of the region, and the source of drinking water for over 30 million people.

Unfortunately, as history would have us witness, technology always outpaces legislature and while the 2005 measure is a necessary one, some feel it may not be enough to address the scope of the problem.

EPA’s map of the Great Lakes highlighting 43 separate Areas of Concern

The above map showcases the officially declared forty-three (43) Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes—St. Lawrence River waterway afflicted by various sources of pollution or contamination. According the section of the US EPA’s website addressed to Great Lakes contamination, the most common causes of contamination in and around the Great Lakes spawns from “decades of industrial and municipal discharges, combined sewer overflows, and urban and agriculture non-point source runoff.” Storms, shipping, and dredging can be noted to stir up contamination in the sediments of the Great Lakes, which in turn perpetuates the process of bioaccumulation in the organisms and lifeforms that make their home in the watershed of the Great Lakes. This then leads to fish at the top of the food chain – primarily lake trout and salmon – to hold higher concentrations of contaminants. Fish eaten by natural predators such as eagles (and humans) then inherit the higher levels of contamination levels as they amass in fatty body tissue.

Of the five Great Lakes, Lake Erie is reportedly the one in the worst status of environmental health.

Green algae blooms in Lake Erie cause irreparable harm to the Lake’s wildlife and ecosystem.

“Lake Erie is the most biologically productive Great Lake, and it also has the biggest sport fishing industry of all the lakes,” the report says. The health of Lake Erie is attributed to an upswing in harmful algae blooms across the lake which result from “excessive nutrients” in lake, phosphorus in particular. This excess in phosphorus causing the algae blooms negatively impacts not only the environment and ecosystem of Lake Erie, but also the lake as a source of drinking water for the US and Canadian citizens who reside closest to the lake. With the health of Lake Erie officially marked as “poor” and/or “deteriorating,” activity which normally drives the local economy such as fishing, shipping, and agriculture is likewise negatively impacted causing more symptomatic problems.

So, before we continue, let’s do a quick recap of some facts:

  1. Over 30 million people rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water

  2. The Great Lakes provide roughly 20% of fresh water on the Earth’s surface

  3. Industrial activity and population growth in the area over the past 100-150 years has led to a large portion of the Lakes’ waters have been contaminated by heavy metals, sewage runoff, and other (sometimes organic) pollutants

  4. We have covered before the cost-and-time-prohibitive nature of environmental remediation which can lead officials to pursue quicker and cheaper options to address issues locals face in regards to accessing clean water for agriculture, tourism, and other industries – not to mention drinking water

When we put these facts together, we frequently get a recipe for disaster. It should come as little surprise then, when in 2012-2013 officials for the city of Flint, Michigan opted for a plan which would, “save the region $200 million over 25 years, according to City Council meetings.” This plan was to switch the city’s water provider from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Karegnondi Water Authority using Flint’s own pipeline which it would construct. However, before the pipeline was completed, Flint would need an interim source of water. Officials opted to use the Flint River, which until the 1960s had been Flint’s main water source.

No. 11 Factory of the Buick Automobile Plant used to be a hub for business and industry in Flint, MI

Flint River, which has historically contained high counts of bacteria known to cause diseases such as Legionnaire’s disease and hepatitis, was treated and processed with additional chlorine in attempts to destroy these bacteria. However, chlorine as an organic material is able to react with organic materials (i.e., metals) in the Flint River water. This can create carcinogenic byproducts – most commonly trihalomethanes, which include chloroform – which are then pumped into agricultural and residential drinking water supplies. Additionally, higher levels of chlorine decrease the pH levels of water making it more acidic and therefore easier to corrode water pipes after processing. “Federal law mandates adding anti-corrosive agents to drinking water in large cities; this standard water treatment practice was not followed.” Stagnation at any point in the water treatment process, including prior to or after treatment, allows for conditions in which additional disease-causing bacteria can flourish.

Once the city of Flint, MI switched its water supply to the Flint River, the city’s water spiked in bacteria counts as well as trihalomethane readings. Coinciding with the switch was an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in Flint which caused no less than ten deaths.

The high concentrations of excess chlorine in the Flint River’s water now flowing through Flint’s older lead pipes expedited the corrosion of these pipes, releasing high amounts of lead and other heavy metals into the drinking water supply for Flint leading to a city-wide outbreak of lead poisoning.

Halloway Dam along the Flint River

It took until October of 2015 for city officials in Flint to switch the city’s water supply back to Detroit Water Supply, otherwise now known referred to as the Great Lakes Water Authority. The damage, however, had been done. Many familiar with the history of the Flint River wondered why it was ever an option to use for the city’s water supply, given the history Flint River has with contamination and pollution:

  1. 1830: Industrial waste is introduced to Flint River with the region’s first lumber mills

  2. 1893: Flint, MI begins using the Flint River for its drinking and industrial use water

  3. 1900-1930: Flint’s population booms to 150,000+ people

  4. 1933: Ivan Kester, a conservation officer for Genessee County, takes note of fish populations dying off in Flint River and the nearby Shiawassee and Saginaw Bays

  5. 1934: Kester sends frozen fish and water samples to the University of Michigan’s Institute for Fisheries Research, citing his believe that Copper-Cyanide is causing the fish to die off

  6. 1940: Counts of native walleye fish in Flint River are all but obliterated

  7. 1945-1956: Post-WWII era Flint grows to 200,000+ people; per capita water usage increases from 56 to 81 gallons per day

  8. 1960: Michigan Water Resources Commission gives Flint three years to cease illegal pollution of the Flint River, citing concerns that the River will not be able to sustain water supply for the city’s industry and civilian population into the end of the century

  9. 1967: General Motors leads the push to switch Flint’s water supply to Detroit

  10. 1972: The Clean Water Act passes as federal US law

  11. 1974: Studies of the Flint River show significant increase in downstream concentrations of toxins

  12. 1975: EPA finds phosphates from fertilizers and detergents in reservoirs upstream stimulated excess algae growth, lowering oxygen levels and turning the river water a cloudy brown

  13. 1977: Lake Huron’s main water pipe causes Flint to temporarily shift to the Flint River for drinking water – residents report poor taste in the water and the city notes it takes nearly ten times as many chemicals to treat Flint River water than Great Lake water

  14. 1986-1988: high levels of bacteria are found intermittently in Flint’s drinking water

  15. 1990: a man is convicted of dumping drums filled with biohazardous chemicals including methylene chlorine and lead into the Flint River

  16. 1999: A subcontractor accidently tears a five-foot-long, six-inch-wide opening in an unmarked sewer pipe while digging to lay down a fiber optic cable allowing “22 million gallons of raw human, industrial, residential, and commercial waste” into the Flint River over two days

  17. 2004: General Motors’s factory along the Flint River is razed to the ground

  18. 2006: 8 million gallons of sewage are spilled into the Flint River

  19. 2008: 18.1 million gallons of sewage are spilled into the Flint River

  20. 2009: General Motors sells the site of the burned factory to the city of Flint for $1

The timeline of events regarding contamination of the Flint River is as long as it is disgusting, and the unfortunate reality of civilization surrounding the Great Lakes is that Flint, MI is only one of the many towns affected by environmental contamination. Flint is merely the latest town to generate news headlines in the region regarding contamination problems, likely due to the gross lack of oversight and planning when it came to placing municipal costs over the health and safety of residents.

At the time of this blog’s publishing, it has been 1,502 days since Flint, MI had available access to clean water.

Children of Flint, MI march alongside their families to demand clean water

The problem of contaminated water in Flint is more well-defined than those facing many other areas. Unfortunately, the solutions and answers deserved by the residents of Flint are overdue and – in some cases – come far too late. “Governer Snyder called Flint his Katrina, but it’s really more like a Chernobyl.”

Of the 100,000+ residents of Flint, MI who have suffered as part of this crisis, roughly half  of those have been minority-race families living below the poverty line. If you would like to make a donation or help contribute to ending the Flint Water Crisis in any way, please see the list of ways in which you can help, here.

“Activists and artists take paint and a brush to the Flint Rock,” March 9th, 2018

Pollution and contamination of our waterways is the driver of our mission here at ecoSPEARS: we work towards cleaning water to create a cleaner future, and despite the broadness of contaminated water even in the US alone, it is important to remember that a problem well-defined is half-solved.

Hopefully, by defining the causes of this problem and working together to generate a permanent, sustainable solution, we can prevent future crises such as Flint from happening again – not just in the Great Lakes Basin, but throughout the United States, and throughout the world.

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