Citizens Environment Alliance
January 4, 1999

Mercury: A Re-emerging Issue In Detroit River Ecosystem

Windsor, Ontario -

Examination of several studies on the Detroit River has confirmed what the CEA has been saying for the last four years. Mercury levels in the Detroit River ecosystem are going up not down.

According to Dr. Russell Kreis, Director of the U.S. EPA Large Lakes Research Station on Grosse Ile, examination of two independent surface sediment studies, a sediment core study, a fish contaminant concentration study, and loading estimation studies indicates that mercury concentrations are increasing in the system. “The sediment survey results were very surprising as concentrations were substantially greater than those observed during the 1980s and in locations that were not previously identified as severely contaminated with mercury.” Concentrations of mercury were detected as high as 16 parts per million (16 ppm) in areas of the Trenton Channel where sediments naturally deposit. Levels of mercury greater than 0.2 ppm are known to be toxic to aquatic life.

“In some cases, the highest concentrations of mercury and other toxic metals were observed on the surface of the sediment core,” Kreis said. “It has taken several years of compilation and examination of these diverse studies to get an overall picture of the present status. This only means one thing. The amount of mercury currently being discharged to the Detroit River is increasing, not decreasing.”

In 1994 the CEA reported, in a news release, that the levels of mercury discharged from the Detroit Waste Water Treatment Plant had increased 78% over a ten year period. That information was based on data published by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) through the Detroit River Remedial Action Plan process. At the time, the MDEQ explained the increase as an “accounting error”. Now, their own data support the CEA’s assessment.

The high levels of mercury recently found in the sediments of the Detroit River are a serious environmental problem and a major concern. The latest permit issued to the Detroit Waste Water Treatment Plant to discharge pollutants directly into the Detroit River allowed a two-fold increase (from 0.009 parts per billion to 0.018 ppb) in the amount of mercury being discharged. “How can we ever expect the Detroit River ecosystem to improve if the state regulatory agency allows the largest discharger of mercury to the Detroit River to dump more mercury,” said Rick Coronado of the CEA. “This isn’t rocket science, folks.”

Mercury is extremely toxic to aquatic life and humans. People who eat fish from the Great Lakes, including the Detroit River, are consuming methyl-mercury, the most toxic form of mercury. In Michigan and Ontario, both children and women of child-bearing age are advised not to eat most Great Lakes fish because the high level of mercury found in the fish will cause damage to the nervous system of young children and the unborn child in the mother’s womb.

To bring attention to the continued environmental degradation of the Detroit River and the failure of the state and provincial governments to address the transboundary environment in the Detroit-Windsor area, the CEA filed a request for an investigation with the Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC) in 1994. As a direct result of the CEA’s request, the International Joint Commission, the treaty organization responsible for monitoring progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, conducted their first status assessment of Great Lakes Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) on the Detroit River. The IJC’s assessment of the Detroit River RAP was critical of government leadership in the RAP process and of the level of public participation. In 1996, public organization members walked out of the last binational RAP meeting to protest the process and the Detroit River RAP document written by MDEQ. A “Citizen’s Guide to the Detroit River Status Assessment” was written by CEA in 1997 help people in Detroit-Windsor area understand the background and environmental issues.

This past summer the U.S. EPA has committed to making the clean-up efforts of Detroit River a higher priority. Now that we are actually examining the data from the Detroit River ecosystem, we need to, once again, merge the clean-up efforts on both sides of the river," said Mary Ginnebaugh of the CEA. "Much of the public's frustration with the earlier process was due to the unwillingness of MDEQ to take their own data seriously. The issue of mercury increases while "source control" was supposedly occurring, is the latest example of the denial that has marred this process for twelve years."

For more information contact:
Shawn Hupka
President, Citizens Environment Alliance
(519) 973-1116