by Maria Maybee, Great Lakes United
Aquatic habitats, such as lakes, river valleys, and their associated floodplains have served as centers of human populations. They provide water and fertile soils which in turn provide food and transportation routes. Our local economy evolved along these rich areas of land. Now it is an economic venture that may prove most challenging for Lake Erie.
Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes and has three basins with very different characteristics. The shallow Western Basin has a maximum depth of 5-10 m. It is eutrophic, has a high turbidity due to resuspended sediments, and has a productive fishery. The Central Basin is the largest basin and has a maximum depth of approximately 20 m. This mesotrophic area of the lake has a narrow hypolimnion that is often deficient of oxygen. The Eastern Basin is the deepest of the three basins. Although it is oligo/mesotrophic, it appears to have a high nutrient status because of the abundant growth of attached algae along the shorelines. Lake Erie is frequently in the path of storms producing seiches that can increase the water level up to 2.5 m at the downwind end of the lake. The lake is also notorious for producing waves with heights over 5 m. Lake Erie differs from the other Great Lakes because it often completely freezes over during the winter.
Lake Erie has had major pollution problems. The discovery of the role of phosphorus loading in the eutrophication of Lakes Erie and Ontario led to the 1972 Canada/United States Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Another concern was the high mercury concentrations in fish caught in the 1970s. Although contaminant inputs into the lake have been greatly reduced, concentrations are still high in the sediments.
There is current concern that the proposed Millennium Pipeline project, a 424-mile-long, 36-inch natural gas high pressure pipeline system beginning in Empress, Alberta, Canada and ending in Westchester County, New York, U.S.A. will destroy an already over stressed ecosystem. The proposed project would cross the Canada/United States border under Lake Erie, 32.9 miles in U.S. waters, and 60.4 miles in Canadian waters. To do so, the project proposes to use an open-water, lay barge construction method to hydraulically drill a three to eight foot trench to accommodate the pipe.
High-pressure pipelines are dangerous. The U.S. Office of Pipeline Safety of the Department of Transportation statistics from January 1986 to February 1997 show 891 incidents with 37 fatalities, 170 injuries, and $183,878,188.00 in property damage. Columbia Gas A-5 line exploded in August 1993 destroying a home. The proposed Millennium pipeline is three times the size and approximately twice the pressure of the existing A-5 line.
Concern for this plan has been raised for several reasons: The construction of the trench will disturb settled contaminated sediments including those containing mercury, PCBs, Cadmium, and arsenic. Where will these contaminated sediments end up? Will Lake Ontario be burdened with more contaminated sediments? Construction will be 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for approximately 6 months. The proposed pipeline passes through shallow biologically active areas that provide food for aquatic species. What will the effects of such disturbances be to the fish, benthic and plant communities of the lake?
If this pipeline is allowed to cross Lake Erie it may set a precedent for the construction of other utility pipelines. The Great Lakes Basin community spent millions of dollars and several decades cleaning up what was once thought of as a “dead lake.” This project compromises the work of citizens of the United States, Canada, Native Americans and First Nations. What “benefits” will this pipeline provide?
The main reason for the Millennium Project to cross Lake Erie is for profit. The cost will be the disruption of a fragile ecosystem, under stress from over-fishing, runoff from industry and agriculture, and development of near shore areas. Regardless of where the pipeline crosses the border, New York and other markets will have another source of natural gas, and construction jobs during the construction phase. The best solution for Lake Erie, if the pipeline is indeed needed, is to reroute the pipeline inland and not under the lake.
FERC is currently reviewing the application. For a current update call 1-800-572-7515 the Docket number is CP98-150. Interventions, protests, or comments should be mailed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Office of the Secretary, 888 First St., N.E., Washington, DC 20426.
If you have concerns regarding the Millennium Pipeline, contact David Pentzien, Millennium Pipeline Chairman, 2150 NYS Route 12, Binghamton, N.Y. 13901, (607) 648-1100 Fax: (607) 648-1205, Dpentzien@nisource.com.