Great Lakes co-chair has faith in us

It helps to have been there before — and Adèle Hurley has. From 1981 until 1990, when the United States amended its Clean Air Act to curb emissions that cause acid rain, she helped lead the Canadian Coalition Against Acid Rain in Washington.

Now, as the Canadian co-chair of the International Joint Commission, she is in the thick of another mammoth struggle for public support, this time for zero discharge of persistent toxins into the Great Lakes.

Yesterday, the commission released its Eighth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality stating that: « The question is no longer whether there should be virtual elimination and zero discharge (of persistent toxic substances), but when and how these goals can be achieved.’’

When the commission called for zero discharge in its 1994 report, industry and most of the media treated it as if it were piddling into the punch bowl. « Poor science,’’ was one charge, “falling into the hands of Greenpeace operatives,’’ another. It was painted as alarmist, impractical, economically dimwitted, and a threat to the orderly conduct of the universe.

It was not unlike early reactions to the Canadian Coalition Against Acid Rain. The thought makes Hurley smile. This is her territory. She is a mistress of modulation. Non-confrontational, stylishly affable. A graduate not only of the acid rain struggle and the lobbying corridors of Washington, but of the board of Ontario Hydro.

She feels that time is on her side. « This is the drinking water for millions of people,’’ she says during an interview, leaving unsaid everything about the power of persuasion that lies in the hands of consumers and voters. Appointed last September, she is the first woman to co-chair the commission.

The IJC’s position is straightforward: “Mounting published evidence indicates that harm to humans from persistent toxic substances is similar to that caused in wildlife.” The problem is that it can take 20 to 40 years, or more, for harm from toxins to manifest itself in humans. In wildlife, where the generation spans are much shorter,  it shows up in a quarter of the time.

It is unquestioned that harm is occurring. The incidence of breast cancer and testicular cancer is accelerating. Sperm counts are dropping. Genital deformation at birth is increasing. The problem is that there is no uncontested proof that any one specific toxin is causing any of this.

What the IJC is saying is that the weight of evidence shows that it is caused by the entire devil’s brew of intermingling, interacting, persistent toxins in the lakes and elsewhere. The commission has singled out eleven of the most dangerous toxins for zero discharge. They are PCBs, DDT and its metabolites, dieldrin, toxaphene, mirex, dioxin, furans, benzopyrene, hexacholorobenzene, lead, and mercury.

In addition, it says that all other persistent toxins are so threatening that a « precautionary principle’’ should be applied to broad classes of chemicals. Manufacturers, importers, and users should have to prove that specific chemicals within those classses are not persistent and toxic before they can be used.

Industry balks at the concept of « weight of evidence.’’ Yet it’s a concept used in courts of law. On any given day of the week across North America, commercial disputes worth hundreds of millions of dollars are decided according to the weight of evidence. Why is it okay to use it for settling arguments between companies but not to protect human health?

It’s an indefensible double standard, but Hurley doesn’t attack. Her approach is collegial, consensual. Her focus is on raising awareness, not on engaging in combat.

« I’ve always believed that people who care are watching and they have an ability to get us to the right decision,’’ she says. « `The process works if you let it. But you have to make it happen. It’s a personal acceptance of responsibility.

« I’ve returned to that old concept of being personally responsible. Writing this letter, attending that forum. That’s what it comes down to. I see people with something worth saying who are starting to realize that you can’t wait for someone else to do it.’’

They are the ones that Hurley focuses on. They are the ones who will move the issue. They are the hope for all of us. In fact, they are us.

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