By BOB GROSS
Of The Oakland Press
The International Joint Commission is hosting an innovative Web Dialogue, Tuesday through Dec. 2, to allow citizens of the United States and Canada to comment on and discuss the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
The agreement between the United States and Canada was signed in 1972 and last updated in 1987... (there's more)
"The governments of the U.S. and Canada will be reviewing this agreement beginning in March of 2006," said Frank Bevacqua, public information officer for the International Joint Commission in Washington, D.C.
"The review will be done directly by the governments of the U.S and Canada led by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada," he said. "The IJC has been asked to consult with the public in the Great Lakes basin before the review begins."
The International Joint Commission, said Bevacqua, "was created by the Boundary Waters Treaty (of 1909) to help the United States and Canada prevent and resolve disputes over the use of the shared waters." The operating budget of the commission is funded jointly by the U.S. and Canadian federal governments.
About 56 billion gallons of water from the Great Lakes are used daily for municipal, industrial and agricultural purposes, according to the IJC. In the water quality agreement, said Bevacqua, "the two countries commit to restoring and maintaining the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem, and they agree to common objectives and cooperative programs to achieve that goal."
There are 37 million Americans and Canadians who live in the Great Lakes basin. More than 40 million - including 1.2 million in Oakland County - get their drinking water from within the basin, and theoretically people with Internet access could talk with each other and make their opinions known during the dialogue.
"We're excited," said Bevacqua. "We held 14 meetings, but it's a very big basin, and we're hoping that this will make it convenient for anyone who wants to participate."
John Klemanski, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University, said the concept of a Web dialogue is a good one, but "getting the word out that that's available is a challenge."
If something is only available online, then it's only available to people with online access, he said. "I think a lot of this online voting and the online environment itself really appeals to younger people," he said. Younger people, he said, "might find it easier and interesting and maybe become aware of it because they're online doing something else."
Online forums as an engine for gathering public comment and for shaping public policy won't completely replace live public meetings, he said, but can supplement them. "As long as that's interactive, I think that method is just as good," said Klemanski.
The IJC is trying to make the dialogue as interactive as possible. For example, an Oakland County resident in Waterford Township, who lives near the Clinton River, which flows to Lake St. Clair and eventually to Lake Erie, will be able to interact with someone who lives in Montreal ‹ the dialogue will be bilingual in English and French with translators available 10 hours daily.
"The Web dialogue is a four-day discussion with an agenda, topics and expert panelists," said Bevacqua. "It's open to anyone who cares about the Great Lakes.
It's designed to discuss the full range of public views and issues of concern that would relate to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and the end result will be to identify issues the governments should consider when they review the agreement.
"You have to register, but it's very convenient," he said. "Anyone who has access to the Internet can join the discussion at any time during the four days."
The discussion is crucial, according to Cyndi Roper, Great Lakes policy director for Clean Water Action, because "we have a significant responsibility to the Great Lakes waters on the U.S. side, Canada has a great responsibility as well. To the extent that we can get together to work out the rules of the road as to how we protect our water, the better off we all are in the long run."
The agreement, said Mike Shriberg, director of the Public Interest Research Group in Michigan, based in Ann Arbor, is in serious need of an update.
"The agreement really right now isn't a particularly useful tool because the times and the threats have changed and it doesn't go far enough," he said. The group, which is launching an e-mail campaign to weigh in on the water quality agreement review, is pushing for changes, such as the inclusion of what environmentalists call the precautionary principle.
"Anyone who is proposing to use new chemicals in the Great Lakes should have to prove that they are safe beyond a shadow of a doubt," he said. Right now, that burden of proof rests, not with the manufacturer, but with private citizens and government regulators, he said. "Invoking the precautionary principle, he said, would not stop new industries from establishing themselves in the basin, "but it would mean polluters would have to show there would be no harm to the lakes before a plant was sited. Polluters should also be required to pay for cleanup, treatment and any harm to victims from pollutants instead of taxpayers bearing the burden," he said.
While there is some concern that reviewing the water quality agreement will result in a more lax regulatory environment, said Shriberg, "the point here is the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement is not driving water quality and is not driving cleanup of the Great Lakes right now.
"In our view because the agreement is not fulfilling its mission anyway, there's little danger (of dismantling a regulatory structure), and there's only one way this could move and that is forward."