Lake’s revival needs our support

Like a fool, I grabbed the tail fin of a dead fish that was floating nearby and whipped it toward my friend Fritz, who was swimming several yards away. It was 1971, and we were at a private beach where we assumed the water was cleaner than the Dunkirk public beaches, most of which had been closed throughout our high school years.

The fish hit Fritz on his spine. He ended up in the emergency room with a severe infection, one that could have been fatal. Fritz survived, but obviously I carry this with me to this day as a reminder not only of my personal recklessness as a teenager, but also the intentional blindness of the adult corporate and political leaders who allowed our greatest natural resource to become a toxic cesspool.

During the ’60s and early ’70s, Lake Erie became infamous as the “Dead Lake,” which was only a slight exaggeration. With very little government regulation, Allegheny Ludlum, Bethlehem Steel and a host of other plants dumped chemical waste into the lake — the average depth of which is a mere 62 feet, the shallowest of the Greats. This included highly toxic levels of lead, mercury, and sulphur. Coastal filtration plants often failed to filter out raw sewage. On farms, the chemical ingredients of fertilizers and pesticides, along with livestock waste, contaminated the ground water and, consequently, the creeks and rivers that emptied into the lake.

The problem was so obvious, so conspicuous — on the beaches and in the shallow waters millions of dead fish floated, their white bellies exposed to the smoggy air. They had been deprived of ample oxygen in the water due to super-high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen. It took the infamous Cuyahoga “River on Fire” in Cleveland — where the water bubbled with toxins, and oil-soaked debris flamed on the surface for two hours-to bring national concern.

This was more than an eyesore. Scientists issued urgent warnings regarding the toxicity of lead and mercury and its threat to all life. What followed, thankfully, was historic bipartisan legislation. In 1972, 151 Democrats and 96 Republicans voted for the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (later referred to as the Clean Water Act), defeating President Richard Nixon’s veto. This was a victory for the people over the huge corporations and their puppet politicians and lawyers.

Today Lake Erie is much cleaner, at least here in Dunkirk. Under the current city leadership, the waterfront has become something to boast about, especially in the summertime. However, because we are so dependent on this resource, it is even more important to guard it against polluters, and to be ready to pay the cost to keep it clean.

We are fortunate to have a Director of Public Works, Randy Woodbury, who is highly educated in environmental issues, and who has the intellect and integrity to serve effectively as guardian against the various toxic chemical and biological threats to our soil and water. He is acutely aware of what happened in Flynt, Michigan and Toledo, Ohio.

Regarding our water, here are a few concerns.

1) Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB’s) (those thick greenish-blue floating patches) are increasing on Lake Erie, in large part the result of chemical runoffs into ground and creek water. Excessive algae in fresh water kills fish and can cause severe illness in humans, from skin rashes to serious disruptions in the respiratory, digestive, and neurological systems.

2) Thanks largely to the fish-gutting expeditions by Fredonia State chemistry professor Sherri Mason, the world is learning more about the dangers of plastic, the waste of which has become ubiquitous on the planet. Microplastics-the tiny beads from cosmetics and undegraded plastic-are consumed by fish but not fully digested, remaining in their systems. (For more on Mason’s research, see NOVANEXT article, “Freshwater’s Macro Microplastic Problem” May 17, 2017.)

3) According to Scientific American, sewage treatment facilities can prevent less than 50 percent our prescription drugs — including everything from antibiotics to steroids to antidepressants — from entering the fresh water, where they are having significant effects on the ecosystem. This is not just about pills being flushed down the toilets-it is also the pills after they have been digested and excreted. There is evidence that this is causing endocrine disruption in fish, rendering them sterile.

Here’s where I take my leap: The Great Lakes are America’s greatest natural resource, just as our children are our greatest human resource. It is our duty to make the world safer for them. To do that, many social and environmental changes must take place, and if there are any adults in Washington, they need to stand up.

The school shooting in Florida — the most recent in a long line stemming back to Columbine 20 years ago — might remind us how difficult a task it has been to get the government to enact laws that would make the nation safer. The reason is simple: large corporations, whether it’s Pfizer or Remington or Procter & Gamble or any of the bottled water companies, find the truth in these matters disconcerting. The individuals who reside at the top of these towers of power will resist any change that threatens their profit margins. Their money is their power, and they will spend it to influence the government.

Unlike some of my more cynical friends, I hold on to the belief that people still do have a say in what laws need to be changed. As a former teacher, I am so proud of the young people who will march on Washington next month, bringing more attention to the need for gun law reform. If we can find common-sense, bipartisan support for that, maybe there is hope for the environment as well, wherein the potential loss of life is far greater.

Most of all, I am hoping that more of our politicians will abandon their allegiance to corporate flags and re-pledge to America’s — the one that stands for a government of, by, and for the people, and not just the rich ones.

Pete Howard is a Dunkirk resident, writer, musician and teacher. His column, FOCAL Point, strives to make insightful social commentary through the integration of Facts, Observations, Compassion, Awareness, and Logic.