Student Voices Series: Dredging up problems today for a better tomorrow

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The Minnesota Environmental Partnership is proud to feature the following post as part of a series of columns as part of a Student Voices Series issues. This is part of a continuing collaboration with Macalester College’s Geography Department and its students.

Growing up in Upstate New York the Hudson River was a staple of my childhood. Every day as I waited for the school bus, I would watch the river and daydream about all the places it led to. My admiration for the river was always tainted by its local reputation as unsafe and dirty. Despite its pristine appearance, the Hudson River suffers from extreme pollution and is currently undergoing environmental dredging. Sadly this is not uncommon for waterways in the United States. In 2004 the beloved Lake Pepin, the widest naturally occurring span of the Mississippi River, was placed on the Impaired Waters List according to the National Park Service. Although the effects of environmental dredging are surrounded by debate, the success of  dredging in Lake Beauclair, Florida and the Hudson River could be extended to cases such as Lake Pepin.

Once a destination for fishing and swimming in the summers, Lake Pepin suffers from phosphorus contaminations which lead to unsightly algae blooms and depletion in fish supply. Sediment buildup also threaten to fill the lake permanently. These issues are a result of upstream pollution in the Minnesota River. Similar to Lake Pepin, Lake Beauclair is located downstream from Lake Apopka which is highly contaminated with nutrients due to local agriculture farms. Efforts to clean Lake Beauclair began in 2011. The project implemented many techniques and technologies to contain the resuspension of phosphorus due to the dredging, effectively controlling further environmental harm.  

 In 2013, Lake County Water Authority deemed the cleanup a success and were awarded the WEDA Environmental Excellence Award by the Western Dredging Association. The Hudson River PCBs Project has also been recognized, and was awarded the silver award this year. The leaders of the Lake Beauclair believe the dredging process in Lake Beauclair  could be applied to other lakes suffering the same nutrient pollution problems, such as Lake Pepin. However before this process can start, there need to be more political movement in the case. Steps towards a resolution for Lake Pepin are at an excruciating standstill. Such was the case of the Hudson River for nearly three decades.

In 1973 the General Electric Company was found guilty of dumping polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a hazardous chemical, into the Hudson River since 1947 from it’s Fort Edward and Hudson Falls manufacturing plants. PCB pollution were linked to a spectrum of health issues, from fetal development to liver disease. Despite the obvious effects of PCBs for the public, GE was able to avoid large scale cleanup of the river by negotiating less costly band-aid solutions such as cleaning the immediate areas around their manufacturing plants. However in 2000 their luck ran out and the Environmental Protection Agency mandated GE to take action by undertaking the Hudson River PCBs Dredging Project. A legal and political battle ensued after the EPA’s decision. GE claimed the Hudson River was ‘cleaning itself’. PCBs do degrade over time through ‘natural dechlorination’, however the EPA “considers all PCBs, regardless of their level of chlorination, to be hazardous to people’s health.” GE subsequently lost, and as of 2014 the project has cost the company over $1 billion. 

The EPA affirmed the benefits of environmental dredging in their five year review of the Hudson River. The EPA concluded that the goals set forth by the project would be met by the year 2016. There is no doubt that if GE had been held responsible earlier, the Hudson River would be in an even better state now. 

In Comparison to the Hudson River case, the pollution of Lake Pepin from phosphorus and sediment loading can not be attributed to a single perpetrator. Rather, the contamination of Lake Pepin and Lake Beauclair stem from agricultural and industrial contamination. The battle to improve Lake Pepin’s waters must include the entire upper Minnesota Waterway System. Although this will entail massive upheaval and cooperation between environmental, government, and agricultural entities, the public can not accept these politics as excuse for a delayed action. While this larger scale issue is being tackled, dredging should commence in Lake Pepin to start counteracting the sedimentary and phosphorus build up. The Hudson River ecosystem and the local population suffered for over thirty years; it is up to local communities of these waters to not allow history to repeat itself in Minnesota’s Lake Pepin.              

The clean water initiatives undergoing in New York and Florida can provide a lesson for Minnesota. If left untreated, future generations will not have the opportunity to revel in the oasis that is Lake Pepin. It is in the people’s best interest that the state use the resources necessary to recuperate Lake Pepin.The environmental improvements of the Hudson River and Lake Beauclair speak to the power of public support and government action. If initiatives for confronting water pollution are put in the forefront, historic waters have a better chance of returning to their former glory. Public support is the primary catalyst. If the public cares, local officials will have no choice but to act.

Join organizations that speak to your concerns and get involved. Help support organizations such as Lake Pepin Legacy Alliance, a nonprofit which advocates for the preservation and protection of Lake Pepin by educating the public and spreading the issue. Or if you want a more hands on approach, become a volunteer for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and help monitor the water quality of the lakes and streams in your area. Contrary to industry beliefs, our waters can’t ‘clean themselves.’ These issues must be confronted today for a better tomorrow.     


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