The federal government is just weeks away from deciding whether to take a popular Lake Erie recreation area in Pennsylvania off the list of the Great Lakes’ most toxic hotspots, as recommended by the PA Department of Environmental Protection. But some local residents remain skeptical about whether the change of status is warranted.
Presque Isle Bay was added to the list of the Great Lakes’ most toxic regions in 1991 because of high levels of liver and skin tumors in brown bullhead catfish. Lori Boughton with the Pennsylvania DEP has been working on the project for a decade and says it’s ready to be taken off the list. She says the city of Erie had to spend more than 100-Million dollars to clean up sewage overflows and that most industrial pollutants are gone.
"We have seen the number, the rates of tumors dramatically decrease since the 1990’s," said Lori Boughton.
But Boughton acknowledges that the source of the fish tumors remains a mystery. She says federal agencies like the US EPA and the US Fish & Wildlife Service have not been able to determine whether the tumors are caused by local or lakewide pollutants. In any case, Boughton says tumors in Presque Isle bullheads are no worse than in other, more pristine areas of Lake Erie.
"When we look at our tumor rates in Presque Isle Bay, we are there. You know, across Lake Erie we looked at a number of non-AOC [Area of Concern] areas. And there’s no zero tumor rate," said Boughton.
But that doesn’t satisfy some members of the public advisory committee like Bob Wellington. He believes the application to take Presque Isle off the list of toxic hotspots should have waited until a new tumor rate study is completed this summer. But committee chairman Jim Rutkowski says it’s time to move beyond contaminant clean-up and start looking for funding to address new environmental concerns in the bay.
"If we do get any federal or any kind of Great Lakes funds, we can use that to study some of the emergent contaminants, especially like personal care products, invasive species, restoration of wetlands and the watershed," explained Rutkowski.
If the US State Department concurs, Presque Isle Bay would become only the second site in the nation to be removed from the list of Great Lakes toxic hotspots. A decision is expected in mid-February.