Report Calls For Better Monitoring Prevention Of Spills In Great Lakes Basin

Noting recent spills in the St. Clair-Detroit River Corridor, the International Joint Commission (IJC) is calling on all levels of government in the United States and Canada to coordinate and improve their efforts to protect the public from spills in the Great Lakes. In its report, Spills in the Great Lakes Basin with a Special Focus on the St. Clair-Detroit River Corridor (released on Oct. 10), the IJC found there is need for further improvements in monitoring, notification, data collection, information sharing and spill prevention.

"Better monitoring, sharing of information and coordinated notification are the keys to protecting drinking water coming from the Great Lakes and safeguarding public health," said Dennis Schornack, U.S. co-chair of the commission.

"While recognizing that the available data is incomplete and not comparable, the commission found generally the number of spills appears to be declining," said the Rt. Honorable Herb Gray, Canadian co-chairperson of the commission, "but more can be done to assure the public that their drinking water drawn from the Great Lakes is safe."

In particular, the IJC found that better monitoring and shared data reporting are needed to determine accurately the real trends in spill incidents in the Great Lakes and particularly the St. Clair-Detroit River connecting channels. To address information gaps, it recommended that the responsible agencies at all levels of government in Canada and the United States develop a shared regional database for the Great Lakes basin that can be used to produce a comprehensive binational spill trend analysis. Noting plans in Macomb and St. Clair counties to install monitoring equipment in the St. Clair River and Lake St. Clair, the IJC recommends that the United States and Canada work together with state, provincial and local governments to establish and conduct joint testing of government supported real-time monitoring and biomonitoring systems. Such systems should monitor for a wide range of potential chemical and biological contaminants and be integrated with hydraulic models of the St. Clair River.

Other areas for improvement identified by the IJC include recommendations to develop common protocols for communicating with the public, to clarify responsibility for costs of spill cleanup, and to harmonize U.S. and Canadian spill prevention and enforcement, including stronger provision for spill containment.

Following a number of chemical spills in the St. Clair River in 2003 and 2004, the commission examined the spill incidents in the St. Clair-Detroit Rivers connecting channels in an effort to determine whether there is an increasing trend in spills that might affect the public. The IJC also reviewed spill data for the Great Lakes and its other connecting corridors, but its primary focus was the St. Clair-Detroit River corridor.

In this report, spills include accidental or illicit discharges of substances (i.e. oils and hydrocarbons, chemicals and wastes) that cause or may cause harm to the environment or humans.

The commission's findings are underscored by the recent release of a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), Better Information and Targeted Prevention Efforts Could Enhance Spill Management in the St. Clair-Detroit River Corridor (July 2006). Like the IJC, the GAO cited issues with data quality and management as well as with spill notification.

Both the GAO and IJC reports focus on spills to the corridor, however, the commission report being also looks at spills to all of the Great Lakes and its major connecting channels.

The report can be accessed in PDF format at

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