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Sinking a Plan to Sell Great Lakes Water

Ontario company's hope to export Lake Superior water to Asia reveals leaks in international trade rules.

Canadian businessman John Febbraro's plan to sell part of Lake Superior to Asia has shown that international protections for the Great Lakes are not quite watertight.

Environmentalists and free-trade critics say that their worst fears have been realized. "If one Asian shipper and one Canadian water retailer believe it is economically feasible to ship Great Lakes water to Asia, the door is open to putting the waters of all the Great Lakes on the market," US Rep. Bart Stupak (D) of Michigan said last week.

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But the top-level response so far has been a call for study. Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy has asked US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to agree to refer the matter to the International Joint Commission, the binational body that deals with boundary water issues.

Mr. Febbraro, who heads the Nova Group in Sault Sainte Marie, in upper Ontario, was granted a permit March 31 to draw up to 427,000 gallons a day from Lake Superior. He plans to export the water by tanker for sale to thirsty Asians. He doesn't yet have any customers signed up, nor anyone to do the actual pumping. But he insists that he's sticking with his plan, unless and until the United States and Canada agree to a comprehensive ban on commercial water exports.

Febbraro went through proper channels at the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, which determined the extraction "wouldn't have a significant environmental impact in the area of Lake Superior," according to a spokesman.

But news that the permit had been granted set off an international crisis. "I've not had a moment's peace," Febbraro says; "I've been fielding telephone calls from across North America."

There are precedents for transporting large volumes of fresh water over the sea, in the Middle East, for instance. What is new here is that "there is no precedent for granting of a permit for extraction for export from a boundary water," a spokesman for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says.

THE amount of water the Nova Group is allowed to remove is far below the threshold that triggers automatic international consultation. "But sometimes it's a good idea to consult ... even if the law doesn't hold a hammer over your head," says Michael Donohue, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, a US watchdog group based in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Canadians have been particularly sensitive about sovereignty over their waters and the possibility that free-trade agreements would force them to sell water to thirsty neighbors to the south. And so the whole episode has been "a fascinating turning of the tables," Dr. Donohue says. "Historically, Ontario has been the hawk in the tree," on the lookout for any transgression of international water-rights agreements by any US jurisdiction, he says. "The [Canadian] federal government is quite alarmed."

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Sarah Miller, an environmentalist at the Canadian Environmental Law Association in Toronto, says that even what sounds like a small drop - three feet, for instance - in the level of Lake Superior "would make a lot of waves, not only on Superior but on all the lakes connected with it: Wetlands would be impacted, shorelines exposed. Recreational beaches would become mudholes. Hydropower would be affected. Even the smallest change in the lake is of concern to Ontario Hydro."

Ms. Miller adds, "There are substitutes for oil and gas, but there is no alternative to H2O. We need a sustainable water strategy."

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