IF someone proposed shipping hundreds of thousands of tons of highly toxic chemicals on a region's reservoir, water consumers would protest and local politicians would head for high ground. The Great Lakes provide water for 24 million people in eight states and two provinces in Canada. Yet thousands of tons of benzene, toulene, xylene, caustic sodas, insecticides, fertilizers, and petroleum products are being shipped on them.
The Lakes contain 95 percent of the nation's fresh water. Yet when the American Petroleum Institute came up with its plan to combat oil spills they did not provide for a regional response center on the Great Lakes.
Eighty-one million barrels of petroleum and hazardous materials are shipped on the Great Lakes each year. According to an interim report prepared for Michigan Governor James Blanchard, ``Existing containment equipment may not be strategically located and most of it is not designed to handle Great Lakes wave action and conditions. Drinking water is vulnerable and there are no wildlife rehabilitation centers.''
The panel put together by Mr. Blanchard investigated the state of preparedness in the Great Lakes region in the event of a major spill and found that: No master inventory of cleanup equipment or contractors exist, there are loopholes in Canadian pilotage requirements, and trained personnel capable of handling a spill are lacking.
John Tanner of the Northwest Michigan College Merchant Marine Academy contends that the Canadians permit captains who have made just a few trips over the Great Lakes to obtain a Certificate B, which permits them to navigate in tough waters without a pilot. Mr. Tanner is quick to point out that sailing on the Great Lakes can be more treacherous than sailing on the high seas. Over the years the navigation season in some ports has been extended into the worst winter months. Storms on the Great Lakes can occur suddenly and take large, modern vessels down.
While the four United States tankers operating on the Great Lakes are double hulled, offering some added insurance against cargo discharge, the 22 Canadian tankers, which handle the bulk of the Great Lakes petroleum shipping, are mostly single skinned.
A spill of a petroleum product or of hazardous material would be worse than a spill at sea because the Great Lakes are a closed system with a long retention time.
Perhaps William Ashworth in his book `The Late Great Lakes'' put it best with this historical perspective: ``When the schooner Rouse Simmons went down off Sheyboygan, Wisconsin, in 1913 her load of Christmas trees caused hardly an environmental ripple. When the freighter Nordmeer grounded off Alpena, Michigan, in 1966 her 47,000 gallons of fuel oil were quite another story.''
One of the potential trouble spots identified in the Michigan report was Traverse City, located on Lake Michigan. The port takes in 3 million barrels of petroleum products annually. A large petroleum bulk storage facility is also located there.
When Traverse City Harbor Master Ron Coulman spotted what he thought might be an oil slick it took him half a day to find the right person to handle the problem. It turned out to be runoff from a freshly tarred roof.
In the event of a grounding, sinking, or other discharge of a ships toxic cargo, the shipper would have first crack at getting a private contractor in. ``In some cases it could take six hours or longer to get going,'' says Coast Guard Lt. John Galvin.
What would be the public response if a factory owner was told that in the event of a fire he would have to find a private contractor to put the blaze out? Somehow, despite a spate of environmental accidents, there remains a lack of urgency - as if beneath all the pretensions we secretly think the earth can take whatever we dish out.
Experts do not agree on how to deal with fresh water and chemical contamination. Dispersants used at sea can be a mistake to use in fresh water. Identification of what has spilled can be a problem as well.
Isn't a tanker leaking toxics into drinking water posing the same clear and present danger that a fire does? In the event of a spill it won't be just the fish and waterfowl that will pay a high price for our lack of foresight.