Canada and the US Rushing Through Renegotiation of Great Lakes Agreement

Accelerated timelines risk stifling public engagement and undermining final Agreement

Jan 28 2010

As the United States and Canada work toward a new Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, environmental and conservation groups are telling the governments that their timeline does not allow for proper public consultation, and that this could seriously undermine the final Agreement, its implementation, and ultimately the health of the Great Lakes.

“The governments began consulting on thinking about the Agreement in March of 2006. They only finally announced their intent to renegotiate last June, and have proceeded to sit on their hands for the past eight months. Now, they want to jam this process through by the end of the year,” said John Jackson, Director of Clean Production and Toxics with Great Lakes United, “I’m sorry, but that’s just not good governance.”

The dissatisfaction was expressed in a letter sent to the governments earlier this week on behalf of 34 groups. It is a response to a presentation by Environment Canada and U.S. EPA in a web conference earlier this month. At that time, the government agencies revealed their process for the renegotiation. Currently, they are inviting public comment on the issue of governance until February 14 – exactly one month from the announcement. The governments have given no indication how future public comment periods will operate.

“By condensing timelines and asking broad, open-ended questions, the governments are making it difficult to provide meaningful, in-depth comments on the substance of a new Agreement,” said Jane Elder, who served as a citizen observer in the 1987 renegotiation of the Agreement. “The governments need to provide a framework and timeline that enables the public to be full participants in a dialogue about the substance and process of Agreement, and ‘click and send’ just doesn’t do it.”

“We understand that we will not be provided with a document to respond to, nor questions to answer on complex governance issues prior to the comment period deadline. Yet, governance determinations are central to effective future actions on the growing challenges impacting the Great Lakes ecosystem,” said Sarah Miller, Water Policy Researcher with the Canadian Environmental Law Association.

“The governments are moving fast, and while their eagerness is appreciated, the short timelines they have set undermine the public’s ability to improve the final product,” said Marc Smith, Policy Manager with National Wildlife Federation. “The long term health of our majestic Great Lakes is reason enough to ensure there’s enough time to do it right.”

“Public comment is a leading way that a community of concerned citizens and advocates is given a voice in government processes. When these measures are curtailed, the principles of our democracy itself are tarnished,” said Grenetta Thomassey, Policy Director with Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council.

The groups, which include formal government advisors, offer six recommendations to improve the process:

1. Release a draft government position or options paper on governance issues.

2. The release of the draft government position or options paper should set off a 60-day public comment period.

3. Once the governments have negotiated draft language on governance, release it again for a public comment period.

4. For the “issues” consultations, follow a process similar to recommendations 1-3, with the release of a draft position or options paper followed by a 60-day public comment period followed by another opportunity for comment after the governments have completed their first round of negotiations on the topic.

5. Compile a web-posted summary of comments received from public input at each stage of the consultations.

6. Release a final draft of the complete revised Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement for comment prior to completing negotiations and hold public hearings in both countries on this draft.

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was first signed by Prime Minister Trudeau and President Nixon in 1972, and subsequently revised in 1978 and 1987. The Agreement committed the two countries to protecting the health of the ecosystem, prohibiting the discharge of pollution in toxic amounts, and to virtually eliminating dangerous, persistent toxic substances.

The Agreement has been the catalyst for major initiatives to clean up and protect the Great Lakes. For example, in the early 1970s, the excessive nutrients in sewage and agricultural runoff fertilized the massive algae blooms that were literally strangling Lake Erie and causing severe damage to the other Great Lakes. The effort behind the Agreement identified the causes of the problem, generated the best solutions, and built relationships between scientists, regulators and citizens groups across the borders. The result was new laws and regulations and a massive effort to modernize sewage treatment. This effort brought Lake Erie and the larger system back from the brink of ecological collapse. The strategies also worked in other freshwater systems across both countries and the world.

Read the Letter

                                                  - 30 -

Contacts: John Jackson, Director of Clean Production and Toxics, Great Lakes United, 519-744-7503, cell: 519-591-7503, jjackson@glu.org

Jane Elder, 608-255-2087, jane@janeelderstrategies.com

Sarah Miller, Water Policy Researcher, Canadian Environmental Law Association, MillerS@lao.on.ca

Marc Smith, Policy Manager, National Wildlife Federation, 734-255-5413, msmith@nwf.org

Grenetta Thomassey, Policy Director, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, 231-347-1181 ext. 118, grenetta@watershedcouncil.org