William McGucken. Lake Erie Rehabilitated: Controlling Cultural Eutrophication, 1960s-1990s. Akron: University of Akron Press, 2000. xiv + 319 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-884836-58-9.
Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb (National Endowment for the Humanities)
Published on H-Environment (September, 2000)
Cultural Pollution and the North American Great Lakes: Government, Industry, and Environmental Regulation in Context
Cultural Pollution and the North American Great Lakes: Government, Industry, and Environmental Regulation in Context
[Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are those of the reviewer and not of his employer or any other federal agency.]
William McGucken's Lake Erie Rehabilitated is a detailed, methodical, and comprehensive history and assessment of an environmental crisis that centered on Lake Erie but had wider import for the Great Lakes and, indeed, for fresh water ecosystems elsewhere in the world. The postwar period, particularly the 1960s, saw a dramatic change in inland bodies of water in North American and in Europe as human-introduced nutrients entered the ecosystem and began to impact lake environments. The excessive increase of nutrients in these inland waters through human activities, termed cultural eutrophication, emerged as a significant environmental, public policy, and industrial economic issue engaging housewives, municipalities, members of the U.S. Congress, the Nixon White House, American and international regulatory agencies, Canadian Ministries and Prime Minister, and internationally renowned scholars and research scientists on wastewater and environmental issues.
Your reviewer, born and raised in the Lake Erie region during this era, recalls vividly many of the events that William McGucken elucidates and places into context. Therefore, a personal and critical eye is cast at this compilation. However, in this compendium we have a balanced view of a complexity of perspectives -- public, political, scientific, economic, industrial, and ecological -- in his enlightening three-decade analysis and synthesis of a notorious international incident that resulted in overnourished lakes, massive algae blooms, depleted oxygen, damage to native fish stocks, and a transformation of the ecosystem of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. Likewise, the reader is apprised of the magnitude of these ecological issues by the use of Lake Erie as the focus of this case study.
The author is currently chair of the Department of History at the University of Southern Indiana (Evansville). A native of Northern Ireland, McGucken received his B.Sc., B.Sc. Honors, and M.A. degrees at the Queen's University of Belfast and his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania. He has published three books: Nineteenth-century Spectroscopy: Development of the Understanding of Spectra, 1802-1897 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969), a revision of his dissertation; Scientists, Society, and State: The Social Relations of Science Movement in Great Britain, 1931-1947 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1984); and Biodegradable: Detergents and the Environment (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, Environmental History Series 12, 1991). His background and impressive earlier forays into the history of science, technology and the environment, and the social aspects of science, provide fitting prelude to the current volume.
The University of Akron Press states in the "Series Preface" that goal of the book series is "to publish the most informative and provocative work emerging from research and reflection, work that will place these issues into an historical context, define the current nature of the debates, and anticipate the direction of future arguments about the complex relationships between technology and the environment" (p. xi). McGucken writes (p. xiii) that his volume is an outgrowth of his two earlier books in which he considered societal responsibility for the uses to which science and technology are put (1984), and the interactions between technology and the environment explicated in his assessment of the controversies concerning pollution by synthetic detergents (1991).
It becomes evident early in the volume that McGucken has an uncanny grasp of the cultural, historical, and scientific data and, therefore, knows about what he writes. His almost day-to-day account of the political, scientific, public, and detergent industry events does not make easy reading but is compelling first-rate scholarship. Nonetheless, it is a story that needs to be told and he has presented us with a compelling but at times ponderous account of the thirty-year environmental crisis and its resolution.
Perhaps it may be useful to describe briefly the characteristics of the focus of this book -- Lake Erie. The lake, the eleventh largest in the world, is the fourth largest of the five Great Lakes of North America and forms the political boundary between the Province of Ontario, Canada to the north and four states of the United States to the west (Michigan), south and east (Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York). The major axis of the lake extends from west-southwest to east-northeast for 241 miles (390 km) and it has a maximum width of 57 miles (92 km). The Lake Erie drainage basin is 22,690 square miles (58,770 sq km), exclusive of the surface area of 9,910 square miles (25,6676 sq km). Water enters from the upper Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, and Huron) via the Detroit River. At its shallow western end the lake contains a series of islands, and water exits through the Niagara River to Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. Lake Erie is also fed by ten major rivers and is the shallowest of all of the Great Lakes with a mean depth of 58 feet (18 m) and its deepest point is 210 feet (64 m). With a volume of 116 cubic miles (484 cu km), Lake Erie ranks fifteenth in the world in that statistic. The five Great Lakes have a combined surface area of 94,850 square miles (245,660 sq km) and is the largest surface of fresh water in the world (an area exceeding that of the United Kingdom), and forms the western section of the greater St. Lawrence hydrographic system.
The Introduction to Lake Erie Rehabilitated begins with a brief history of post-Second World War environmental movements, seen initially in two phases, 1957-1965 and 1965-1972; and the influence of Rachel Carson and the first Earth Day in 1970. He traces the development of the science of limnology (the study of the physical, chemical, and biological aspects of fresh waters), and early studies on 27 European and 10 United States lakes by Walter Hasler. Notable among the studies was Switzerland's Lake Zurich and pollution reports dating to as early as 1896. McGucken also reviews the importance of Canadian limnologist Noel M. Burns's Erie: The Lake that Survived (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allenheld, 1985), Phil Weller's Fresh Water Seas: Saving the Great Lakes (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1990), and Terence Kehoe's Cleaning Up the Great Lakes: From Cooperation to Confrontation (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1997), among others.
In Chapter 1 "Cultural Eutrophication: An International Problem," the author assesses the emergence of cultural eutrophication as a serious international problem. He reviews the creation of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED) in 1961, the Uppsala symposium in 1968, the creation of the U.S. Environmental Pollution Panel, and the National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council Planning Committee on Eutrophication established in 1965 and the results of its 1967 symposium. The introduction of automated appliances (wringer-type washers in 1941 and dishwashers in 1948) and the introduction of "revolutionary domestic cleaning products" -- synthetic detergents (composed of surfactants, builders, and phosphates) are surveyed. McGucken also discusses the element phosphorus as essential for all organisms (algae to humans), human-introduced phosphates as nutrients altering lake ecosystems, and the realization by scientists that the reduction of the nutrient supply, sewage treatment, and the modification of agricultural practices would be essential in controlling eutrophication.
McGucken's second chapter, "Eutrophication of Ontario Waters," examines the Canadian perspective, focusing on the Ontario Water Commission (OWCR) annual reports beginning in 1958. The use of chemicals (algaecides through 1962), mechanical controls, and growth and nutrient studies, including photosynthesis, are summarized, and a pilot-plant treatment facility is reported. The elimination of BOD (biochemical oxygen demand), large-scale field-testing, the ineffectiveness of algaecides, and a detailed analysis of the Trent River system freshwater lakes are outlined.
With Chapter 3, "The Polluting of Lake Erie," the author presents a brief history of the lake's pollution from Native American times to the present, emphasizing the Anglo American period since 1783. The construction of the Erie Canal, Canadian agriculture and American industrial practices (with accompanying silt, commercial wastes, and sewage) are reviewed, as are the decline in Lake Erie commercial fishing and the formation of the IJC (International Joint Commission) which undertook studies of sanitary sewage and storm water and industrial wastes. Phenols, cyanides, ammonium compounds, oils, and suspended solids are discussed. The beginning of water quality monitoring in 1952 raised the awareness of both national governments and the public -- witness the "Save Lake Erie Now Campaign," newspaper articles (including The New York Times ), and a Public Health Service assessment that demonstrated that conditions were even more critical than thought originally. Phosphorus stimulated algae growth, diatomaceous photoplankton, and the control of nitrogen are assessed, as is the disappearance of mayflies (their sightings are normally the sign of a clean lake).
McGucken also reviews an international conference held in Cleveland and in Buffalo (May and August, 1965) which brought together eight Great Lakes governors and representatives from the provinces of Quebec and Ontario in "The Lake Erie Enforcement Conference." Declines in lake fisheries, increases in inorganic nitrogen and soluble phosphates, national press coverage, and the conference results are reported. A technical committee was established and reported in March 1967 on human activities leading to excessive algae, the problems of phosphorus control, the results of a demonstration project (activated sludge), and documentation of statistics on phosphorus production (3.5 pounds per person per year: 1.0 from excreta and 2.5 from detergents). The results of the subsequent Lake Erie Enforcement Conference of 1968, state agreements to reduce phosphorus in waste effluents, and the search by sanitary engineers for superior means to remove phosphates are also summarized. In Chapter 5 "The U.S. Government, the Detergent Industry, and Eutrophication," the author documents federal activities during the late 1950s and 1960s by the U.S. House and Senate, the Department of the Interior, and the Soap and Detergent Association. The creation of the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration (FWPCA) and the Joint Industry/Government Task Force on Eutrophication are summarized, as is the search for chelates and organic salt substitutes for detergent phosphates.
McGucken's sixth chapter, "The International Joint Commission's Reference on the Lower Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River," documents how the IJC coordinated, extended, and intensified its leadership on the resolution of pollution problems. A three-phase program of short- and long-term research and the establishment of two technical boards focused on the Lower Great Lakes and St. Lawrence are documented. Scientific research confirmed the existence of nutrient inputs and nutrient traps in the western and eastern ends of Lake Erie; showed marked changes in zooplankton, oxygen depletion, and fish populations; and characterized municipal and industrial sources of phosphorus and nitrogen in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. IJC public hearings began and the potential financial burdens to small municipalities and rural areas to remove waste pollutants are assessed.
In Chapter 7, "Canada's Regulation of Phosphorus in Detergents," McGucken employs a variety of documents to establish that the Canadian government and public responded quickly and positively to the phosphate challenge. For example, the Canadian Water Bill conceived in 1967 was enacted by 1970, and the development of NTA (the sodium salt of nitrilotriacetic acid) as a substitute for detergent phosphates moved forward. Scientific research by Lange, Kuentzel, and Kerr, among others, and several task force reports are summarized. In essence the Canadian plan called for the combined reduction of phosphorus in detergent with an accelerated program for phosphorus removal from municipal and industrial wastes. In 1971 the Canadians also created a Department of the Environment in response to the pollution crisis. The Canadian public supported enthusiastically these actions.
However, in the United States activities progressed at a different pace and scale as seen in Chapter 8, "U.S. Opposition to Detergent Phosphate." The search for chemical substitutes for phosphates continued but there were disagreements between the IJC and FWPAC, and Congress, especially the House Conservation of Natural Resources Subcommittee. A 16 December 1970 article in The New York Times helped to coalesce public opinion and affected the Buffalo-based "Housewives to End Pollution" and the Washington, DC "Concern Incorporated" groups. McGucken provides a balanced view by documenting the corporate positions of Procter & Gamble, Lever Brothers, and Colgate-Palmolive. FWPAC became the FWQA (Federal Water Quality Administration), initiated new education campaigns and conducted research. The use of NTA was initially recommended, and McGucken reviews the new detergents created by Fremont Industries, Ecology Corporation of America, and Gillette Company Research Institute, as well as Sears and Roebuck's non-NTA detergent.
Meanwhile, the industry-based National Industrial Pollution Council contended that taxpayers should bear the costs of building treatment plants to remove phosphates from sewage. The chapter also documents the roles of Wisconsin's Representative Henry Reuss and Senator Gaylord Nelson in sponsoring legislation to ban phosphate by 1972. Nonetheless, the Canadians were more than two years ahead in legislative activity. However, human health concerns and ecological issues were soon raised about NTA as a potential mutagen because of the amount of lead, cadmium, and mercury discharges into the lakes. Therefore, the United States banned its use.
McGucken's ninth chapter, "Concerns about NTA Use," has an account of Swedish, Canadian, and American toxicological research and three resulting environmental positions. The Swedes concluded that risks to human health from NTA did not warrant a ban, the Canadians continued to use NTA but closely monitored its use, while the United States continued to ban its use.
In Chapter 10 "U.S. Reversal on Detergent Phosphate," the reader is reminded that the American scientific, government, and public view was that phosphorus input needed to be reduced. Proctor & Gamble contended that the National Cancer Institute's study of NTA was inadequate and flawed, and commissioned its own study by an independent laboratory, Arthur D. Little, that confirmed the P&G view that the use of NTA did not pose a serious health or environmental problem. McGucken also reviews other scientific research, alkalinity problems with substitutes (Ecolo-G and Bohack's No Phosphate), and the inevitable Congressional and Federal Trade Commission hearings and the resulting Reuss Commission Report.
Manufacturers reduced phosphate content but the uncertainty of NTA as a health and ecological hazard still loomed. The author cites Reuss as stating that the Nixon White House capitulated to the detergent manufacturers, and there was a speedy return to the use of phosphate detergents --which shocked the Canadians and those American communities that had already initiated phosphate detergent bans. This "panicky reversal" and these "disingenuous statements" served to establish U.S. policy on eutrophication and detergents for the near future. The Canadians, on the other hand, observed that NTA was not a hazard and that complex factors had been overlooked in the American study (water salinity and water speed, for example). Nonetheless, the United States and Canada responded separately to the IJC recommendation to extract phosphorous from sewage effluent. McGucken begins Chapter 11 "Control of Eutrophication under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972," with a review of the IJC reports for 1964 through 1970, and focuses on the creation in 1970 of the Canada-United States Joint Working Group on Great Lakes Pollution and on the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) of 1972. International programs, standards, and recommendations are reviewed, but the most salient points is that President Nixon and Prime Minister Trudeau signed the GLWQA on 15 April 1972 which established five objectives to minimize Great Lakes eutrophication. The author reminds the reader that this was an agreement not international law.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was initially authorized to spend $18 billion from 1973-1975 to finance 75 percent of the cost of constructing public sewage treatment facilities, but that was later reduced to $11 billion. However, by 1982 $7.25 billion had been spent for these facilities in the United States and Canada. How the allocation dwindled makes for interesting reading. McGucken uses Detroit as a case study of the inability to achieve effluent reduction requirements and he reports the Soap and Detergent Association's litigation failure versus the State of Michigan to prevent the state's Natural Resources Commission from regulating phosphates. We are also informed that the U.S. phosphorus discharge was 257 times as great as that of Canada (p. 207) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency's Region V was charged with finding alternatives to the growing problem of sludge processing and disposal.
The mathematical modeling of lake conditions presented in the subsequent chapter entitled "Phosphorus Control under the 1978 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement," seeks to explain the reasons for phosphorous concentrations in the central Lake Erie Basin. Comparing longitudinal data from 1972 through 1978 necessitated revisions in November 1978 to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a shift to the control of toxic substances, and goals for municipal water treatment plants. Hence in 1978, for the first time, the United States required the regulation of detergent phosphorus in the Great Lakes Basin (p. 218).
Studies reviewed in Chapter 13 "Control of Phosphorus from Nonpoint Sources," determined that 23 percent of the Lake Erie total phosphorous input derived from agriculture (livestock, hogs, and chickens), in the main due to transported phosphorus drained from intensively used farmlands. The introduction of sound soil conservation measures (abandoning chisel plowing and adopting contour plowing, for example) and fertilizer application procedures (not spreading manure in wintertime because spring melts resulted in a substantial runoff of nutrients into streams, rivers, and lakes) and other remedial strategies are assessed. The author ends with a synopsis of the Honey Creek demonstration project.
In Chapter 14 "Toward Phosphorus Target Loadings," schedules for phosphate reduction and permissible amounts of phosphorus are considered. The Lake Erie target of 11,000 metric tons per annum compared in 1985 with an actual loading of 13,000 metric tons. Efforts focused on nonpoint sources of phosphorus including animal waste management, commercial fertilizer use, and conservation tillage. Ohio is used as a case study to document how the phosphorus content in Lake Erie was reduced by limiting the sale of high phosphorus detergent (each of 35 Ohio counties had goals and the city of Toledo's difficulties are explicated). Procter & Gamble (headquartered in Cincinnati) developed new nonphosphate detergents and gradually dropped its opposition to the state's attempts to legislate the allowable levels of phosphates in detergents. Erie County, Pennsylvania was among the last of the Lake Erie jurisdictions to limit detergent phosphates. Therefore, by 1990, the entire Lake Erie drainage basin had established phosphate detergent regulations. The author also returns to the NTA issue, pointing out that after a decade of use in Canada there were no obvious problems although some American scientists maintained that NTA was a secondary carcinogen.
In the final chapter, "Lake Erie Eutrophication Controlled," McGucken revisits the goals of the 1978 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. He notes that improvements in water quality were seen initially in the late 1970s and 1990 had largely realized the objectives: algae reduction, recovering plankton and benthos, and a resurgence of native fish. He also evaluates the goals that were met and those that were not. This unprecedented Canadian-United States effort to "save" Lake Erie had cost approximately $7.6 billion of which $1.7 billion was expended by Canada (p. 262).
Although there is cause for celebration because of the lake's newfound clarity, trouble spots remain: the Rouge River in Michigan, and the Maumee, Black, and Cuyahoga rivers in Ohio. Nonetheless, this effort is a short-term response to a long-term problem and is exacerbated by lowered lake levels in the 1990s with intensified wave action effecting bottom sediments. Increased water clarity, measured by the Secchi depth measure of water transparency, is due in part to the human endeavors described in McGucken's volume to diminish cultural pollution and eutrophication. Since the late 1980s Secchi depths have increased from 2-3 meters to 3-5 meters a decade later and chlorophyll concentrations have diminished by 50 percent. However, this trend from a mesotrophic to an oligotrophic lake is due to an alien invader, the Zebra mussel. McGucken leaves us wondering -- what next? I shall comment on this issue.
Although Lake Erie is more-or-less "rehabilitated" in terms of cultural eutrophication involving phosphates, the lake and its sisters are still targets of marine invaders arriving from overseas via bilge-water discharges from ocean-going ships. In a recent article in The New York Times entitled "In Great Lakes, Endless Battle Against Marine Invaders" (11 July, Health/Science) David Binder presents some sobering statistics on these and other "beasties" -- 145 exotic invaders ranging from bacteria and plants to fleas and fish. Binder quotes Dr. David J. Jude, a University of Michigan research scientist, as saying: "This is a war, and we're losing it."
The sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) has been in the lakes for nearly all of the 20th century due to egress via the Welland Canal, but increased dramatically thanks to the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1960s. It has become a most prolific and pervasive enemy, attacking and killing vast quantities of native fish. Binder notes, for example, that since 1970 $300 million has been spent in the attempt to eradicate the lamprey without much success; lampricides have reduced that population perhaps ten percent. Other exotics include alewives (Pomolobus pseudoharengus), intrusive from the Atlantic coast since the 1960s, that enter via the St. Lawrence.
The Eurasian ruffe (Gymnocephalus cernuus) and round goby (Neoglobius melanostomus), the latter appearing in 1990 and whose origins are the Caspian and Black Seas, are the other major exotic fish. The ubiquitous zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha) likely came from the northern shore of the Black Sea (lower Dneiper or Bug Rivers) and had also spread to Poland, Germany, France, Sweden, and England during the 19th century. They are efficient water filters but are also destroying native North American bivalue populations and their numbers create biofouling (the buildup of zebra mussels on any surface), especially power and water intakes and sewage outlets. This aggressive species also inflicts heavy damage on underwater shipwrecks according to maritime archaeologists and historians, but enhanced water clarity, up to 77 percent, has been a boon to SCUBA diving (see "A Threat to Underwater History" by William Clairborne, The Washington Post , 22 August 2000. The mussel has already adapted and spread into the Hudson, Ottawa, Ohio, Illinois, Mississippi, and Arkansas River systems. However, apparently the zebra mussel has an enemy -- gobies eat zebra mussels -- perhaps a Pyrrhic Victory? Water birds also eat the mussels but these birds then exhibit elevated levels of contaminants that create reproductive system problems in these waterfowl. A recent invader is the spiny water flea (Bythotrepes cederstroemi). Yet humans continue to introduce "favored" species such as chinook and coho salmon and hatchery-bred lake trout for sport fishing, further modifying the ecosystem.
Indeed, we have come a long way in scholarly reporting from the culture historical description of Lake Erie by Harlan Hatcher (Lake Erie , Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1945) and from earlier environmental profiles of the lakes such as William Ashworth's The Late, Great Lakes: An Environmental History (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986) and Noel M. Burns's Erie: The Lake that Survived (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allenhead, 1985). One recent volume touches upon the eutrophication issue as a part of treating drinking water rather than treating sewage, and environmental regulation in the Great Lakes, but in less detail than McGucken. This is a book by Terence Kehoe entitled Cleaning Up the Great Lakes: From Cooperation to Confrontation (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1997), reviewed in November 1999 by Stephen Blocking for H-Environment: http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=2283944868550
William McGucken is a unique writer, an historian who understands both detergent science and limnology and is able to interpret the "hard" sciences for the reader who does not possess a scientific background. Lake Erie Rehabilitated is a splendid chronicle of human scientific, public, and governmental efforts in Canada and the United States to resolve the problem of cultural eutrophication. Readers who are scientifically oriented (ecologists, biologists, chemists, and geologists among others) or are advocates of the social sciences and humanities (historians, political scientists, public policy scholars, or anthropologists) will find the volume of exceeding interest. It is well written and a valuable synthesis of numerous complex topics, there is a wealth of material and documentation presented, and, therefore, the book is highly recommended as a remarkable success story.
There is, perhaps, one ultimate question to ponder: Is humankind heading towards a one-world homogeneous ecosystem with modified environment and loss of species diversity because of cultural eutrophication and the human introduction of non-native "exotic" species? The current scientific evidence points in that direction.
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Charles C. Kolb. Review of McGucken, William, Lake Erie Rehabilitated: Controlling Cultural Eutrophication, 1960s-1990s.
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