Sewage-free Great Lakes a priority for one U.S. senator

U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, will make a triumphant return to Congress in January, months after suffering a stroke. Kirk recently said that one of his priorities upon returning to Capitol Hill will be seeking a ban on sewage dumping in the Great Lakes.

Hallelujah! It’s about time someone in Congress carried the torch for the long overdue effort to keep untreated and partially treated sewage out of the Great Lakes.

For more than a century, numerous Great Lakes cities in the U.S. and Canada have used the lakes as toilets whenever heavy rains overwhelm outdated sewage treatment facilities.

A sewer overflow in Milwaukee flows toward Lake Michigan.

In 2009, just five Great Lakes cities — Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Milwaukee and Gary, Ind. — discharged 41 billion gallons of untreated sewage and filthy storm water into the lakes. That’s equivalent to the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls during a 15-hour period. I documented this problem in a 2010 report for the National Wildlife Federation.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes produced a report earlier this year that explained what must be done to clean up this mess.

Some cities are making progress toward ending sewer overflows. But the sad fact is that billions of gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage continues to flow into the Great Lakes each year.

One of my favorite cities, Chicago, is one of the worst offenders. Between 2007 and 2010, Chicago discharged nearly 19 BILLION gallons of untreated sewage mixed with storm water into Lake Michigan.

This is a serious problem that taints the source of drinking water for 30 million people, contributes to bacterial pollution at beaches and diminishes costly efforts to restore these majestic lakes.

Of course, it would cost billions of dollars for cities to make the infrastructure improvements needed to end all sewer overflows into the Great Lakes. But it’s clearly worth the effort.

Is there anything more fundamental than keeping crap out of the Great Lakes? I think not.

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