For how long will we stare into the reflection of a beautiful Lake Champlain before we realize it is but an image? The death of two family pets that dared splash in its waters was not enough.
Lake Champlain’s listing by the CBS News travel editor and New York Times best-selling author in a book on horrific travel destinations, “Don’t Go There!: The Travel Detective’s Essential Guide to the Must-Miss Places of the World,” evoked anger at the messenger, but not enough concern about the message to prompt meaningful action by regulators and elected officials.
The pleas of some property and business owners and the exodus of others were not enough. State and federal officials still went so far as to fight public health advocates in court about the need for devising and implementing effective pollution control plans for a lake turning green before our own eyes.
The illnesses of some three dozen beach-goers at a popular state park were not sufficient.
The acknowledgement of state health officials in its Cyanobacteria Guidance for Vermont Communities of the higher risk posed to children, the absence of known antidotes to the toxins now hidden in the clear waters following a bloom collapse, and the likely under-reporting of algae-induced sickness still have not prompted sufficient concern to move us to tangible, meaningful action.
Will it be the new research released recently by our friends in Quebec that documents the illnesses of those coming in contact with and depending on public drinking water supplies of Missisquoi Bay that motivates us to invest in the protection of our public water supplies and our recreational waters?
It has not been enough, either, that Environmental Health Perspectives published the findings of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center neurologist Elijah Stommel and his colleagues: “They found that people living within a half-mile of cyanobacterially contaminated lakes had a 2.32-times greater risk of developing ALS than the rest of the population; people around New Hampshire’s Lake Mascoma had up to a 25 times greater risk of ALS than the expected incidence. Nevertheless, Stommel says, ‘Our GIS mapping is clearly showing clusters in proximity to (harmful algal blooms).’”
Perhaps it will be the peer-reviewed work of Australian and U.S. researchers recently published in PLOS ONE showing the link between a neurotoxic amino acid produced by cyanobacteria and neurodegenerative illnesses — Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Lou Gehrig’s, among them — that have us move from excuses to action.
Perhaps, it will be reading this piece that joins you with me and others to effectively mobilize public and private resources to once and for all move beyond our fixation with the image we have of ourselves. All of our poor decisions regarding land use — be it for residential or commercial development, food production or energy production — are reflected in our waters.
Bad public policy always rolls downhill, and we should not be so skeptical as to believe that it is the low per-capita income or lack of college degrees of the most affected communities that permits the use of certain parts of our lake as our cesspool.
It cannot be ignored, however, that it is going to take money and lots of it to protect the economic viability of our tourism industry and to not put further unnecessary demands on the unsustainable health-care situation facing our businesses and governments. Church Street and those slopeside would be wise to realize that as our pollution-plagued communities go, so do the economic opportunities.
For those of us in the business of public policy, we have long been met by those of all political persuasions with explanations of how we cannot afford to mitigate and remediate the effects of past and current poor land-use and water policies. How can we afford not to.
Why would we not want to invest in the most fundamental of human health and economic pillars — safe water and sanitation?
Why would we not want to create Vermont jobs protecting and improving our own communities?
Why would we not want to be true to our own self-made image of placing concern for children and neighbors and the environment foremost among our values?
For how long will we avoid the mirror?
It has often been noted that in great crisis lies great opportunity. The conditions in several areas of our drinking water supplies, our personal recreation destinations, and our hospitality industry properties have reached great crisis proportions. We are not so foolish as to wait for yet one more study to tell us we are slowly poisoning ourselves and our children, when we have the scientific and engineering tools now to turn pollution-plagued communities around as other communities around this country and the globe are doing. The difference: The people of those communities made it their own priority.
It is not going to be the Environmental Protection Agency of Boston or Washington, D.C., that cleans up St. Albans Bay. It is not going to be Montpelier and its downtrodden bureaucrats that clean up Missisquoi Bay. As it is now, Montpelier has data that conclude it will take decades to clean up Missisquoi Bay once we reduce the nutrient pollution by 75 percent.
Some even question whether that part of Lake Champlain is beyond hope. It likely is if we continue to rely on answers from those who created the problems initially. The astute among us are aware that by federal law the EPA and its delegated proxy, the state of Vermont, were to have eliminated all pollutant discharges into our waters by 1985 with waters safe for fish, wildlife and people by July 1, 1983. Thirty years past deadline and still no plan other than to offer rationalizations why nothing is possible for another generation.
At a meeting recently, a public official suggested a miracle was in order. I disagree. What we need is leadership. I will concede that true leadership — the selfless call to place the needs of others ahead of oneself in the attainment of a greater good — may seem like a miracle in today’s world, but I believe when good people get together to achieve a common goal great things happen.
If the state of our waters is beyond hope, then we are beyond hope, and we have not only failed ourselves but all future generations who must rely on our integrity and our prudence. We cannot bow to the decisions of itinerant appointed officials nor the Pecksniffian missives of Chamber employees when we call for directly and openly addressing our pollution problems. They are afraid. We understand that. Fear must be transformed into positive action, however, and not expended as wasted energy on denial and blame.
We must heed the likes of Walter Bradley, an ALS expert and former chairman of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Bradley is quoted in EHP as stating, “I don’t think there’s any question that the scientific basis of BMAA and its neurotoxicity is moving along at a very satisfying pace, and it is all concordant with the hypothesis ( the link between environmental toxicants and motor neuron diseases).” Alarming for certain.
We must resolve ourselves to set about the paramount task of living on our landscape without poisoning ourselves and our children. Money has long been the excuse and justification for passing our pollution on to our neighbors and our progeny. We have the money; it is just a matter of our priorities. For the past generation, protecting the drinking and recreational waters of the next generation clearly has not been one of those priorities.
Let us change that today — together — at every town meeting, at every church gathering, at every Rotary lunch, at every family gathering. Let us reach out and embrace the needs of those downstream — downstream in our riverbeds and downstream in our history pages. Let us resolve to stop polluting our rivers and lakes. Let us rebuild communities where rivers are no longer extensions of our sewer pipes and our barnyards, but pathways to safe drinking waters and healthy fisheries. Let us. We can do it. We must do it. Our future depends on it, and that future is staring us in the face today. And what we see, be it ugly or beautiful, and be it death or life, depends on whom we embrace.
James Ehlers is executive director of Lake Champlain International (mychamplain.net).MORE IN Perspective
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