Freshwater Future Canada Blog

Nuclear Waste and the Great Lakes

It may be a surprise to learn that spent nuclear fuel rods can be found near the shores of the Great Lakes. Without the existence of a waste depository – a place to safely store spent rods – nuclear waste is stacking up in vulnerable locations.

What do we do with the waste? The only solution that has been considered is a central location for the waste to be buried, yet finding that location has been near impossible due to local and state or provincial opposition.

With widespread nuclear waste – the province of Ontario alone has 52,000 tons of nuclear waste – transporting all the existing waste to a central repository creates potential hazards from accidents and could take up to 50 years. If a central repository can’t be built and storing rods on the shores is not safe, it is imperative that the industry develop alternative and safe options.

On top of the transportation and location issues, the proposed locations for repository sites are not safe either. In Ontario both proposed sites are lakeshore communities.

Nuclear energy will never be a sustainable option if waste solutions don’t exist. Perhaps the glimmer of hope in this news is that there has never been a better time to invest and increase our commitment and use of renewable energy sources.

The Detroit Free Press released an extensive article, outlining this issue that goes into more detail. Read it here. 

Keeping Flint at the Forefront of our Consciousness

by Latia Leonard


Nearly three weeks ago, I like millions all over the world, watched as some of the world’s biggest stars paid tribute to Aretha Franklin during her televised funeral service. One dignitary after another gave their fondest memories of Aretha, some of which included their final conversations with her. One of those speakers included retired Michigan 36th District Judge and Detroit native Greg Mathis. During his speech, he recalled his final conversation with Franklin concerning the Flint water crisis. Mathis said at the time they spoke, the State of Michigan had just announced it was discontinuing its bottled water distribution to residents. He expressed Aretha’s anger at the decision, then told the crowd and the world watching through TV that she wanted him to go to Flint and “Sock it to em!” 

Mathis, a community activist in his own right, took the opportunity to remind the world that Flint still isn’t quite fixed. With a star studded audience, consisting of policy makers, former presidents, and decision makers who wield the power and influence to make a change, it only made complete sense to bring Flint to a national stage. Famed actress Whoopi Goldberg on the season opener on the ABC televised talk show ‘The View’ reiterated Mathis’s message, saying “We need more water for Flint, we got to find a way to get that back going”.

Wait there’s more. Just recently on the nationally televised ‘Miss America’ pageant, Miss Michigan’s very own Emily Sioma courageously highlighted the city’s ongoing water struggles during her opening speech. “From the state with 84 percent of the U.S. freshwater but none for its residents to drink, I am Miss Michigan Emily Sioma,”she said. Even more recently, film producer and Flint native Michael Moore premiered his highly anticipated documentary ‘Fahrenheit 11/9’. This documentary covers in part, the Flint Water Crisis and how he believes it happened, and those responsible.

In each of these instances, powerful faces from different corners of the entertainment industry have used their platforms to do one thing in common, lift Flint back into the front of everyone’s conscious. That’s right… if the progress everyone wants to see is really going to happen we need to use our collective platforms to ensure that Flint’s recovery is still a priority both internally and externally. Keeping Flint not only in the forefront of our conscious, but also our hearts, in leading this recovery with compassion. Celebrities aren’t the only ones who can use their voices to keep Flint moving forward – using hashtags such as #FlintWaterCrisis, #FlintRecovery or #FlintLivesMatter, and making sure you are registered for the upcoming election are actions you can take to  empower Flint’s progress. Let’s keep Flint moving forward together.

Freshwater Weekly – August 31st, 2018

This week: Great Lakes Sees Signs of Climate Change + Lead at Detroit Public Schools + Lake Erie Algae Threat Dissipating

Great Lakes Region Sees Warmer Summer, Extreme Weather Events — Signs of Changing Climate

Flash floods, prolonged droughts, record heat, forest fires, hazy air, algal blooms, and poor water quality have afflicted various parts of the Great Lakes region all summer. Researchers and residents alike are reporting more and more days over 90 degrees, noticeable shifts in historical weather patterns, and altered growing seasons for native plants and crops. Local news sources across the region have documented the effects of climate change that Great Lakes communities are already experiencing. We’ve compiled a handful of the best stories below.

As forest fires burn in Ontario, experts warn of the long-term environmental impact

Behind uneventful Minnesota summer weather lurks signs of climate change

Study: Climate Change Hinders Summer Fun on Lake Erie

Ohio’s Portman: Climate change is real, we have to do something

Algae Bloom in Lake Superior Raises Worries on Climate Change and Tourism

State of Flux: Great Lakes water level variability leads to uncertainty for coastal areas

A few more bad apples: As the climate changes, fruit growing does, too

Algae Toxin Threat on Lake Erie Dissipates As Summer Ends

Algal blooms in Lake Erie often linger well into fall, and experts expect the Lake’s current bloom to stick around until at least mid-October, but the odds of having algal toxins show up in your tap water or favorite beach are falling each day. Researchers say that 70 to 80 percent of each bloom season’s toxins appear in the open water during the month of August, and fewer than 10 percent in September. While Lake Erie shoreline residents aren’t in the clear yet, the riskiest time of the algae season has passed.

High Lead and Copper in Detroit Public Schools Results in Complete Water Shutoff

After test results for 16 schools showed higher than acceptable levels for copper and/or lead, the Detroit Public Schools Community District has announced that they immediately shut off drinking water at those schools. Bottled water has been provided in the interim as the district waits on water coolers to be delivered. Out of an abundance of caution, water will be shut off at the remaining schools in the district later this week until a thorough analysis can be conducted.

In February of 2017, the district announced that drinking water at all 94 of its public schools fell within federal guidelines for lead and copper, a result mirrored by further testing later that same year. It is unknown at this point what has caused the spikes in both metals. One building in particular recorded a drinking fountain at 100 times the allowable limit for lead.

U.S. Court Upholds National Safeguard for Coal Ash, A Top Water Pollution Threat

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit’s decision last Tuesday adds up to another loss in a string of defeats for the Trump Administration as it attempts to unravel a host of environmental protections from the last decade. The court sided with public interest groups who argued that the Obama-era protections inadequately protected surrounding soil and water from ash pits, and that the Trump Administration is bound by law to strengthen regulations.

Coal ash is the toxic waste left over from coal-burning power plants. It contains some of the deadliest known toxins, including arsenic, lead, radium, mercury, and chromium. These cause various types of cancer, heart disease, reproductive failures, strokes, and long-term brain damage.

The court’s decision follows the release of nationwide testing data that demonstrates groundwater pollution from coal ash at almost 90% of plants (both active and abandoned) in the country. There are currently over 1,400—70% of which are located in low-income areas.

Michigan Reaches Halfway Point in Statewide PFAS Sampling of Water Systems

The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) has announced that its statewide sampling of public water systems for PFAS contamination has reached its midpoint. The $1.7 million survey is the first of its kind in the United States. So far, the state has sampled and tested 892 of the 1,841 public water systems and schools that operate their own wells. 341 of those tests have come back positive: 318 between 0 and 10 parts per trillion (ppt), 22 between 10 and 70 ppt, and 1 above 70 ppt.

While Michigan is one of only a handful of states to establish a “clean-up” or health advisory standard (70 parts per trillion), it’s notably higher than other states such as Minnesota (27/35 ppt) and Vermont (20 ppt). A recently released report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows statistically significant risk above 7-11 ppt. Freshwater Future warns residents in communities affected by PFAS contamination that there is no agreed-upon and established “safe” level of exposure. The State of Michigan will only take remediation action, issue drinking water advisories, and provide alternative water sources for systems who exceed its 70 ppt threshold—which Freshwater Future believes does not accurately reflect the human health risks of PFAS.

The statewide sampling schedule and confirmed test results are published on the MPART web site at: You can use this resource to check on results for your community.

Freshwater Weekly – August 24th, 2018

This Week: Microplastics + Line 5 + Toronto Flooding + Algae in Lake Superior

More Flooding Hits Toronto, Renewing Concern About Overflows Into Lake Ontario

Steady rain early this week had residents wading through waterlogged streets and dealing with transit delays for the third time in several weeks. Since the beginning of August, 148 millimetres of rain have fallen on the city, according to Environment Canada. As systems become overwhelmed and city streets fill with water, that excess often spills out into Lake Ontario. We reported last week that the city’s last raw sewage overflow event caused bacteria levels in the city’s harbourfront to soar “off the charts.” Sewer and stormwater overflow can include everything from used condoms and plastic tampon applicators to mounds of shredded toilet paper and plenty of unidentifiable solids.

Experts say Toronto’s density and decades-old sewer system are two top contributors to sewer and stormwater overflow. Moving forward, the city is investing $3.1 billion for stormwater management upgrades, and has amended bylaws to encourage the installation of “green roofs” that have the ability to capture and process an average of 70 percent of rainfall. The city also encourages residents to use Toronto’s basement flooding protection subsidy program, which offers single-family, duplex, and triplex residential homes a subsidy of up to $3,400 per property to install flood protection devices.

Beer, Drinking Water, and Fish: Microplastics Are Everywhere

Since the mid-20th century, 8 billion tons of plastic have been manufactured, and when it’s thrown away, much of it crumbles into small pieces. Researchers call these “microplastics,” which are defined as objects smaller than 5 millimeters—about the size of a letter on your computer keyboard.

Recently, we’ve been reporting on the burgeoning science of plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, as more inquiries are made on where used plastic ends up, where it comes from, and how it moves about the environment. Chelsea Rochman, an ecologist at the University of Toronto, is one of the leading researchers on this emerging field of study. Check out this article and interviewwith Chelsea on Great Lakes Today to find out more about what we do and don’t know about microplastics in our waters.

U.S. Senator Peters Holds Line 5 Hearing in Traverse City, MI

Representatives from federal agencies, Enbridge, and industry and environmental groups testified on Line 5, oil spill prevention and preparedness at a Senate Commerce Committee field hearing in Traverse City, Michigan on Monday. Senator Gary Peters’ (D-MI) questions covered the condition of the pipeline, whether or not Michigan needs or greatly benefits from its existence, and the logistics of a possible decommission.

Peters was highly critical of Line 5 operator Enbridge Inc., citing the severe trust deficit felt throughout the state after Enbridge’s past incidents—including the Kalamazoo oil spill in 2010. When the Senator confronted David Bryson, Senior VP of Operations for Liquid Pipelines at Enbridge, he received roaring applause from the overwhelmingly supportive crowd.

Enbridge did say at one point during the hearing that they would release video and images showing damage to Line 5 from the anchor strike in April, although no details on when or how were given. You can watch the full hearing on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s website.

“Unprecedented” Algal Bloom in Lake Superior

Although now largely dissipated, the scummy residue on the Lake’s surface across 50 miles of shoreline near Superior, Wisconsin raised more than a few eyebrows. Lake Superior is deep, cold, clear, and generally very low-nutrient, meaning algal blooms are rare. 2012 was the first year a bloom of blue-green algae was detected in Lake Superior. This occured after 10 inches of rain overwhelmed Duluth, Minnesota and the surrounding region, sending a plume of brown sediment into the lake. Storms in northern Wisconsin spurred another round of flooding, sediment dumping, and resulting algal bloom in 2016. And it happened again after this year’s historic June storms in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, northern Wisconsin, and northeastern Minnesota. This last bloom was the largest observed.

Researchers don’t yet know whether this most recent Lake Superior bloom was toxic. In the meantime, scientists say there’s no need to worry: the blooms that have occurred thus far are very small and have had a negligible impact on water quality. However, blue-green algae has grown more commonplace in the Great Lakes region alongside warming lake temperatures and an increase in phosphorus and nitrogen runoff. Lake Superior hasn’t escaped these trends, and researchers warn that runoff and resulting algal blooms will be more commonplace in the future.

Freshwater Weekly – August 17th, 2018

This week: Sewage Leaks in Toronto + Disappearing Great Lakes Beaches + Foxconn Invests in Renewable Energy + Freshwater Future’s Flint Water Testing Program

Estimated One Trillion Litres of Sewage Have Leaked into Canadian Lakes and Rivers Over Last Several Years

Recent flash-flooding in Toronto caused an unknown amount of raw sewage to overflow into the city’s harbourfront. According to national water advocacy group Swim Drink Fish, bacteria levels in affected areas “were off the charts.” Sewer and stormwater overflow can include everything from used condoms and plastic tampon applicators to mounds of shredded toilet paper and plenty of unidentifiable solids.

This is an all-to-common occurrence in the Great Lakes region, and across Canada. Toronto, like most other Canadian cities, doesn’t collect real-time data about sewage leaks. Thus, it’s unknown how often and to what extent this type of event occurs. The Canadian government requires annual reporting on the issue, but most municipalities submit estimates based on computer models. Data provided by Environment Canada shows that in 2017, approximately 215 billion litres of raw sewage leaked into local waterways without treatment—an increase of 10 percent over five years. About 2/3  of the 2017 amount was released intentionally during high-intensity precipitation events. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities estimates that it will cost cities $18 billion to implement the federal government’s new regulations on wastewater treatment that are aimed at severely curbing the overflow events.

Cornell Researchers Discover 2 New Non-Native Species in Great Lakes

The Great Lakes now have a total of 180 documented foreign species now that scientists have observed two new exotic species, both about the size of a flea. They both have been found in low abundance, and scientists have no evidence so far of serious negative side-effects on native zooplankton species. For that reason, they are not yet being referred to as “invasive,” a term which is typically reserved for species with negative impact. These are the third and fourth non-native zooplankton species discovered in the Great Lakes in the past three years.

Plankton serve as the base of the food chain and are a staple in several small fish species’ diets. Over the last few decades, native zooplankton populations in the Great Lakes have plummeted thanks to the highly-efficient filtering of invasive zebra and quagga mussels. It’s unclear what, if any, effect these two new species will have on Great Lakes ecosystems. Scientists’ next job is figuring out how they arrived, but an early suspicion is the ballast water ships carry from foreign ports.

Foxconn Addresses Critics in Wisconsin, Plans Investments In Tech to Reduce Water Consumption and Increase Renewable Energy

Back in May, we reported on an approved legal challenge to Foxconn’s expected water consumption at its proposed Wisconsin factory. Following this announcement, Foxconn released information about a planned $30 million investment for a water recycling system that will reduce their daily consumption from ~7 million gallons to around 2.5 million gallons.

The company is now following up with details of a possible rooftop solar array that may cover a significant portion of the plant’s expected 200 megawatt electric demand—somewhere between 100 and 150 megawatts. The power expected to be drawn initially from Foxconn plus its nearby suppliers is over six times greater than the next-largest Wisconsin manufacturing plant, and is similar to the total power used in downtown Madison. Negotiations with the local utility are in their early stages, and no plans are finalized.

While an insignificant drop in the (freshwater) ocean, we opposed Foxconn’s 7 million gallon/day withdrawal based on the negative precedent it set with regard to the Great Lakes Compact’s (check out our comprehensive overview of the Compact here) rules on water withdrawals. We still hold that view! Regardless, Foxconn’s early announcements around water and energy efficiency are welcome news.

Have High Great Lakes Water Levels Made Your Favorite Beach Disappear?

Many of us here at Freshwater Future have noticed our favorite beaches have looked a little, well, on the lean side these past few years. To help us understand why, Michigan Radio interviewed Philip Chu—a research scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory—about the ins and outs of water levels. Check out their 10 minute interview to find out what factors impact our water levels, how erosion plays a part in our changing beaches, and whether or not this is “normal.”

Freshwater Future’s Flint Water Testing Program — In the News

“These young people will be the future water warriors.” Read more on The Renewal Project.

“We’re gonna be a model city for people all around this country for people to learn from us. Cause we didn’t go through a crisis for nothing.” Read more on NBC News.

“A pilot program is giving Flint teenagers the opportunity to learn new skills, while helping city residents still too scared to trust their drinking water is safe.” Read more on Michigan Radio.

As Algae Season Descends on Lake Erie, Freshwater Future Amps Up Campaign to Challenge Political Leaders to Fix Nutrient Pollution

We know what’s wrong. We know how to fix it. The only thing lacking is the political will to do something about Lake Erie algae.

Take Action Today: Send a message to Premier Ford of Ontario, Governor Snyder of Michigan, Governor Kasich of Ohio, and Governor Wolf of Pennsylvania. Tell them we need leadership on saving Lake Erie.