When it comes to dealing with safety on Lake Ontario, government is more likely to target the victims of environmental crimes than the polluters themselves. Waterkeeper calls "safety" the second cornerstone of a healthy waterfront community because it is the assurance that the natural environment is protected and the public's rights to swim, drink, and fish are given priority over polluters' privileges.
Last week, we wrote that clean water becomes less of a priority when public access is restricted. This week, we will show how government policies inadvertently promote a safer Lake Ontario by suspending our rights, rather than protecting them.
Beach closures. They make headlines when they happen in presumably pristine areas such as Sandbanks and they draw yawns when they happen in presumably murky areas such as Toronto. The issue of swimmable beaches is more than a question of leisure. At one time, beaches were the social hubs of our communities. They help protect public health in the scorching, muggy downtown areas where many people cannot afford the luxury of air conditioning. They also support the valuable tourism revenue in areas such as Prince Edward County - one beach closure at a provincial park typically results in a flurry of emails from potential travellers concerned about safety.
Beaches are closed when E. coli counts reach 100 cfu/100 mL water, indicating sewage contamination. Sewage carries with it pathogens, such as salmonella; viruses, such as Hepatitis A, protozoa; such as cryptosporidium; and worms. It is a threat to both human and aquatic safety, so when we find it in our waters we restrict public access. St. Catharines, Toronto, and Hamilton discharged sewage into Lake Ontario regularly in 2003, closing beaches to the public a total of 751 times.
For six million people, Lake Ontario is more than a place for industry, a channel for transportation, or a vacation destination. Lake Ontario is their sole source of drinking water. We use filtration technologies to remove most contaminants from our tap water, but some - like tritium - cannot be treated. There are about 360 different contaminants in the Great Lakes, some of which settle into the sediments, and some of which are carried to drinking water intakes. The "dump first, treat later" policy on Lake Ontario pushes the cost of safe drinking water onto the taxpayers. Further, there is no drinking water treatment for the wildlife that also rely on the lake.
Both Ontario and New York State publish consumption restriction advisories for fish. New York State also publishes restrictions on the consumption of migratory birds. For most of the lakes in Ontario, the number one pollutant in fish is mercury. For Lake Ontario, it is PCBs. People are discouraged from eating more than four meals of fish each month, including fish from restaurants or tins. Additional restrictions are placed on women of childbearing age and children. There is no indication that these consumption restrictions have improved in recent years.
While the restrictions on swimming, drinking, and eating from Lake Ontario may protect public health in the short term, they make it easier for polluters to abuse their privileges in the long term. The longer communities agree to suspended rights, the less likely we are to remember that we even have them.
In this way, public access and environmental safety are inextricably linked: We need public access to the waterfront in order to remember the importance of clean water to the survival of our communities, and we need it to be safe to be there for generations of humans and wildlife to come.