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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Joining Forces: The International Joint Commission

Air Date: Week of

Dick Brooks talks with Steve Curwood about the environmental clean-up successes in the Great Lakes region of the U.S.-Canadian cooperation group the International Joint Commission.


CURWOOD: The herbicides being studied by the EPA and the University of Wisconsin, as well as other pesticides and many other persistent toxic substances are part of a broad chemical class known as organochlorines. That is, they're all related to the nearly ubiquitous chemical, chlorine. Scientists have made such a strong link between organochlorines and reproductive, neurological, and immune defects in animals and people that a ban on chlorine is under consideration in the United States and Canada. The loudest call in North America for a chlorine ban is probably coming from a US-Canadian government agency known as the International Joint Commission. Dick Brooks covers the Commission, also known as the IJC, from member station WOJB in Hayward, Wisconsin. Dick, thanks for joining us.

BROOKS: It's my pleasure.

CURWOOD: Can you give us a snapshot of what the International Joint Commission does? Especially in the context of its call for the elimination of chlorine?

BROOKS: Well, the International Joint Commission was a water use commission in the early 1900s. And in 1972 the United States and Canada passed the International Water Quality Agreement, and the IJC since that time has been responsible for overseeing the implementation, the monitoring, of the improvement of the water quality in the Great Lakes.

CURWOOD: Now, let's talk about this call to eliminate chlorine. Is this a call for a complete ban everywhere?

BROOKS: No; it's not a ban in fact. What it is, is we're talking about the sunsetting, or the phased-out use of chlorine. And most particularly in the use of chlorine as a feed stock in industrial process: pulp, paper mill, that kind of thing. We'll probably have chlorine around for purification of drinking water and things like that for some time.

CURWOOD: Why is it okay to use chlorine to purify drinking water, as opposed to using it in industry?

BROOKS: Well, in industry, where it's being used as a feed stock, as a chemical process stock, there are some serious problems called by-products. Dioxin is one of the primary by-products of the use of chlorine as an industrial feed stock. And if we're going to get rid of dioxin, we have to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of chlorine in industry.

CURWOOD: Dick, how did the International Joint Commission make the decision to call for this sunsetting of chlorine?

BROOKS: Well, the IJC for several years has been listening to its own science advisory board. It has commissioned many studies. It has brought in, you know, review of studies that have been done. And it was simply by marshaling the facts, doing the studies, doing an analysis and a review, and coming to a decision that the evidence was overwhelming, that some of these materials had to be eliminated if we're going to keep pristine water in the Great Lakes.

CURWOOD: This is a pretty unusual call. I mean, it doesn't seem to me that there's any other major governmental agency or quasi-governmental agency that's calling for the sunsetting of chlorine. How did the International Joint Commission come to be at the leading edge of this issue?

BROOKS: Well, first of all the IJC is an international agreement between 2 countries. It has the support of the EPA and Environment Canada. They have done a number of things. One of the key things they've done is they've created a citizen involvement all around the Great Lakes that can no longer be ignored. Business, government, are taking notice of citizen interest and citizen participation. I think that the IJC is at the leading edge because it's been risk taking, it has taken some very strong stands calling for elimination of chlorine, calling for the elimination of persistent toxic substances. And has developed a very, very powerful grassroots, citizen-based momentum, if you will, that is up against the inertia of bureaucracy that we see in some of these agencies. And I think as this momentum meets this inertia, it's getting some things done, and I think it's lent a power because of its international prestige that other agencies haven't been able to marshal.

CURWOOD: How has the US Environmental Protection Agency and its counterpart in Canada, Environment Canada, responded to this call for the sunsetting, the elimination of chlorine?

BROOKS: Both have taken under advisement the recommendations of the IJC. And I think that within the next year, both Environment Canada and EPA will be making announcements as to their positions. I think they're going to endorse the sunsetting of chlorine. I think they're going to endorse the virtual elimination of these other persistent toxic substances.

CURWOOD: Some criticize the International Joint Commission by saying it's just moving too slowly, that they've been calling for this sunsetting of chlorine for the last couple of years but, hey, nothing is going on. Is that a fair criticism?

BROOKS: I think it's not a fair criticism. I think that quite a bit has been going on. I mean, we're talking about 20% of the world's fresh water in the Great Lakes. That's not a small problem that we're talking about. But if you want to look back to 1970, before the water quality agreements were signed, Lake Erie was choked with algae, the Cuyahoga River had caught fire, Lake Erie fishery was closed for mercury, the Fox River and the Detroit River were too polluted for fishing, Love Canal was still undiscovered. I mean, there were all kinds of environmental problems in the Great Lakes Basin, all of which have been dealt with since 1970 . I think a lot has been accomplished. Billions of dollars have been spent in wastewater treatment. Many pesticides have been banned. Mercury has been reduced, lead has been removed from gasoline. So I think to say that there's not progress is incorrect. I think that when you look back like that, that's pretty remarkable progress. But when you say well, Jeez, I went to a meeting 2 years ago and they were talking about this and here it is 2 years later and still nothing is done, I think it appears, you know, it may be glacially slow but it's got the power of a glacier as well. It is moving, and it is making some very big changes.

CURWOOD: Dick Brooks, thanks so much for talking with us.

BROOKS: It's been my pleasure.

CURWOOD: Dick Brooks is a reporter on Great Lakes issues from WOJB in Hayward, Wisconsin. He's also the station's program director.



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