An unforeseen ecological disaster

A translation by Judith Turcotte

The St. Lawrence River connects the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. It is 1197 km long and its estuary is the earth’s largest with a width of 48 km and a length of 370 km. The waters of this great river are our responsibility; however, we are not the only ones to have this responsibility; our river receives the waters of the Great Lakes and the quality of its waters was once a veritable nightmare.

In the sixties, I still remember news reports on American television on the subject of the rivers’ pollution which flowed into the Great Lakes. The discharges of chemical products and oils had literally killed these rivers. The people accepted this situation as a normal consequence of industrial and demographic development. It is only when the Cuyahoga River exploded in flames that the situation made the headlines and that the politicians had no choice but to do something.

The Cuyahoga River is situated in Ohio; it crosses the city of Cleveland and flows into Lake Erie. At the end of the sixties, everybody knew that the river was extremely polluted; oil blobs floated on its surface and it was possible to see, at certain times, unusual bubbling breaking through the surface. Popular rumour was that if someone fell into this water, it was imperative that they go to the hospital immediately. In 1969, a fire broke out in an oil slick and was contained in less than 30 minutes. The fire was minor but it struck the imagination of the people and became a symbol for the environmental movement that was at its beginnings. In 1972, following this incident, the Clean Waters Act was voted. Today, it is possible to see dozens of fishermen along the shores of the Cuyahoga and the beaches of Chicago are busy again.

While the Great Lakes discharged their polluted waters into the St. Lawrence, they benefitted from a natural protection. Niagara Falls, a barrier of 100 metres high represented a protection against invaders coming from the Atlantic. However, everything changed with the construction of the Seaway, a project considered at the time as an achievement of contemporary engineering but turned into an ecological disaster.

The creation of the Clean Water Act in 1972 had contributed to the sanitation of the waters of the Great lakes but an omission in the regulation had serious environmental consequences. The agency responsible for the surveillance had accepted a derogation, that of allowing ships arriving from the Atlantic by the Seaway to drain ballasts of sea water containing living particles of animals and vegetation coming from all over the world into the Great Lakes.

There exist today more than 186 non-indigenous species in the waters of the Great Lakes. Among the best known, there are, of course, zebra mussels and quagga mussels that have also reached our shores. Apart from the mussels, the ballast water has introduced in the lakes, among others, botulism, a disease that killed hundreds of birds, a sufficient number of algae to block city water intakes and a virus known by the nickname “Ebola of the fish.”  This virus is expanding everywhere on the continent to the south by the St. Lawrence River and to the north by the Mississippi Basin.

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