Carol M. Browner, Administrator
Environmental Protection Agency
Remarks Prepared for Delivery
International Joint Commission
September 24, 1999
Good evening. It’s a pleasure to welcome you to the opening of this Plenary Session and to join you in celebrating the 90th anniversary of the International Joint Commission a real model of bilateral diplomacy.
When the Boundary Waters Treaty was signed in 1909 — and the IJC created — Theodore Roosevelt was the American President.
Roosevelt in so many ways really was the father of the environmental movement in the United States. But he also believed strongly that conservation needed to be an international cause.
In fact, a month after the Boundary Waters Treaty was signed, Roosevelt hosted the North American Conservation Conference the first-ever, high-level, environmental meeting of the governments of Canada, Mexico and the United States.
In issuing the invitation to the conference, Roosevelt said: “It is evident that natural resources are not limited by the boundary lines which separate nations, and that the need for conserving them upon this continent is as wide as the area upon which they exist.”
A statement as true today as it was 90 years ago.
And that is why the IJC created at the beginning of the century will remain an important institution in the century to come. Let me take a moment to thank all the commissioners and staff of the IJC for the hard work they do. It is such an important job.
The United States and Canada share a great many rivers, lakes and streams along our continental border — as well as the border between Canada and Alaska.
Among the most stunning of these natural wonders is the Great Lakes.
I’m sure many of you have heard these numbers before, but they’re worth repeating.
The Great Lakes make up the largest system of fresh surface water on the face of the earth with 95,000 square miles of surface water! Almost 20 percent of the world’s fresh water and 95 percent of the United States’ fresh water is in the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes take up more than half of our 5,525-mile continental border and each day a trillion gallons of this water is used by both nations to sustain both our communities and our commerce.
A natural resource this grand, this valuable simply must be given the greatest possible protections.
That is why I am pleased to announce today several new initiatives this Administration will undertake to further safeguard the health of the Great Lakes. By protecting the environment of the Great Lakes we are also protecting the health of both our families and our economies well into the century to come.
First, it is time to become even more aggressive in restricting the release of pollutants like mercury, PCBs and DDT and other toxic chemicals known as BCCs or “bioaccumulative chemicals of concern.”
These pollutants can attack the liver, kidneys and the nervous, reproductive and immune systems in both humans and animals. Research provides additional evidence that some of these pollutants are “endocrine disruptors,” meaning they may interfere with the hormones in wildlife and humans.
We believe a key step in limiting — if not eliminating — these toxins from the environment is to do away with the so-called “mixing zones” those areas in the Great Lakes around the end of an outfall pipe where a toxic brew of chemicals — like mercury and PCBs — are allowed to mix with lake waters and “dilute.”
The idea is that this poisonous plume will reach safe levels as it moves further out into the lake.
We can do better. Dilution’s no solution. Prevention is.
Bioaccumulating toxic chemicals are not known for their ability to become diluted. By allowing these toxic chemicals to gather first in “mixing zones,” we guarantee that over time they will spread and accumulate throughout the delicate environment of the Great Lakes.
Despite their great depth and size, the Great Lakes are vulnerable to toxic pollutants because they remain in the lakes for many years. Even in small amounts, they become more concentrated as they move through the food chain, from plants to fish and animals and ultimately to humans.
The elimination of these so called mixing zones would dramatically reduce direct discharges of mercury into the Great Lakes Basin by up to 90 percent. Our proposal, when final, would immediately prohibit all new discharges and would phase out the use of existing mixing zones for BCCs over a 10-year period.
EPA first proposed eliminating mixing zones nationwide for BCCs in 1995. But — guess what? We were sued and a U.S. Appeals Court later told us to revisit our decision and its potential cost to industry.
Today’s proposal reinstates that mixing zone provision based on even stronger environmental and public health evidence — evidence that the highly bioaccumulative nature of these toxins present a significant potential risk to human health, aquatic life and wildlife. Based on these facts, EPA believes the benefits of eliminating mixing zones outweigh costs.
Already the Great Lakes States of Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin prohibit mixing zones.
And I believe that, working with our partners, we can find cost-effective, commonsense ways to eliminate mercury and other BCCs upstream, thus keeping it out of the Great Lakes in the first place.
The Great Lakes are a shared natural treasure and we’ve taken extraordinary steps to protect and revitalize them. I believe that our actions, therefore, can serve as a model for other North American waters.
So today we are also calling on the rest of the nation’s governors to voluntarily follow the leadership of EPA’s action today as well as the leadership of the four Great Lakes states that have already eliminated mixing zones and help us address this environmental problem on a nationwide basis.
I am also directing EPA staff to begin a review of existing mixing zones nationwide and to consider whether they should be phased out for BCCs.
It is finally time to move beyond the solution to pollution is dilution, particularly for BCCs that we now know don’t dilute.
But we need to do more to control mercury here in the Great Lakes and other waters.
This fall, EPA will release our third report to Congress on Deposition of Air Pollutants to the Great Waters. While it shows we have made some progress — progress we can all be proud of — it shows there is still much to do. For example, studies have shown that pollution that drifts on the winds or falls with the rains is the dominant source of mercury contamination of Lake Michigan — contributing about 80 percent of the annual total.
EPA is pursuing aggressive regulation of mercury emissions to the air. Among the largest sources of mercury emissions are coal-fired power plants, municipal waste combustors, medical waste incinerators, hazardous waste combustors and plants that produce chlorine. EPA has already issued rules to cut emissions from three of these sources and is moving to take action on the others.
The largest source of mercury air emissions are coal-fired, electric power plants, which account for approximately one-third of all mercury air emissions. The Clean Air Act required EPA to do an extensive study of utility toxic emissions and then make a finding as to whether it was necessary to control emissions from these plants.
EPA completed its study in 1998 and was prepared to make its determination. But then Congress required EPA to delay its finding until completion of yet another study by the National Academy of Sciences. That study is in progress and we expect the results next summer.
Assuming Congress doesn’t again delay our work, by no later than December 2000, EPA is committed to making the determination on whether it is necessary — for public health and environmental protection — to impose controls on mercury and other toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants.
In the meantime — as part of this Administration’s aggressive “right-to-know” program — beginning next year power plants will be required to report mercury emissions to our Toxic Release Inventory. And that plant-by-plant information will be made available on the Internet.
Already, in conjunction with the Department of Energy and several power companies, EPA is assessing and testing the effectiveness of potential mercury control technologies for power plants.
And there is much more that we are doing.
EPA issued final regulations for controlling mercury and other toxic emissions from municipal waste combustors in October 1995. At the time these sources accounted for about 20 percent of all man-made mercury emissions. When all facilities come into full compliance in the year 2000, mercury emissions from these facilities will be reduced by more than 90 percent from 1990 emission levels.
In August 1997, EPA issued an emission standard for medical waste incinerators. Medical waste incinerators are estimated to account for more than 10 percent of mercury emissions to the air. When EPA’s standard is fully implemented by 2002, mercury emissions from medical waste incinerators will be reduced by 98 percent from 1990 levels.
And just last July, EPA issued a final rule reducing emissions from hazardous waste incinerators. These incinerators account for approximately 5 percent of mercury emissions. The rule will result in a 60 percent reduction in mercury emissions from these facilities.
EPA is also developing a new, more stringent standard to control emissions from plants that use mercury to produce chlorine. There are only 14 of these plants nationwide, yet they account for about 5 percent of all mercury emissions. And all of these plants are located by bodies of water, which means they may have an even larger impact on their local communities. The new standard will be proposed by next summer.
Now, as many of you know, this is the final year Congress required us to issue The Great Waters Report and unless Congress authorizes additional funding EPA does not have the resources to continue producing the report on a biennial basis.
However, because this report has been a tremendous source of information for state and local governments, environmental groups and industry, we have decided to continue preparing it on a four-year schedule.
However, EPA is also committing today to take two additional steps to ensure timely access to this information and thorough public participation in protecting our nation’s waters.
For the first time, we will post on the EPA website all the data that is to be summarized in future Great Waters reports as soon as it is available.
On top of that, next year we will begin to issue an action plan that goes beyond our Congressional mandate for the Great Waters Report. This plan will detail our environmental strategy for airborne water pollution in the Great Lakes Basin and other bodies of water nationwide. We are committed to developing and refining this plan with strong participation of state and local governments, industry and environmental groups. And we will revise and reissue this action plan every two years.
Finally, let me note that yesterday Vice President Gore announced this Administration’s support of a bipartisan bill introduced by Congressman Bart Stupak of Michigan and other Great Lakes Members that would prohibit the bulk sale of fresh water from the Great Lakes until the effects can be fully studied by the IJC.
Opening the door to these kinds of sales without completely understanding the environmental consequences could mean that quick profits for some turn into lasting environmental and health problems for millions.
The health of our environment, the health of our families and the health of our economies are not commodities to be sold to the highest bidder.
Back in 1907, President Roosevelt warned that if his generation didn’t preserve the environment didn’t protect our great natural wonders it would be impoverishing all the generations that followed.
Those words spoken at the dawn of this century still ring true as we gather in the twilight of the age.
The way we manage the precious, irreplaceable resources of the Great Lakes will say a lot about us to the generations to come. To fail to act is to fail our children and our children’s children.
And to fail them, would be to shame us all.
But I believe that if we follow through on the steps announced here today, future generations will look back and thank us. Perhaps one day in the new millennium a family will be out fishing on one of the Great Lakes — or one of the rivers or streams they feed. And someone will point out that back in the late 1900s, you couldn’t eat most fish caught in the Great Lakes. You couldn’t swim in large parts of it. And once a river fed by the Great Lakes actually caught fire.
But instead of just wringing their hands, that generation back in the late 1900s rolled up their sleeves and got to work. And now the Great Lakes support thriving wildlife and are safe for fishing and swimming.
You see, when we leave a healthy environment for the generations to come, we do more than just create a legacy. Given our present power to destroy the environment, by choosing instead to preserve it we are actually building a monument — a monument greater than any in history because it can stand for all time.
And doesn’t everyone in this room want to be a part of that?