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Contaminated Sediments Program

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inset map of Great Lakes Areas of Concern

Key Sediment Problem Areas
in the Great Lakes Basin

The Great Lakes Legacy Act of 2002 authorizes $270 million from FY2004 through FY2008 to help with the remediation of contaminated sediment in the 31 U.S. Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AoCs), including specific funding designated for public outreach and research components.  Priority goes to projects in which a plan is in place and ready for implementation, and/or that will use an innovative approach to cleanup.  Funds provided under the Great Lakes Legacy Act will mean an increase in new cleanup projects and a reduction in the amount of contaminated sediment polluting the Great Lakes, and, a significant step toward environmental restoration of the Great Lakes.

EPA's Great Lakes program has reported that polluted sediment is the largest major source of contaminants in Great Lakes rivers and harbors entering the food chain, including 42 Areas of Concern.

Table of Contents

Background on Contaminated Sediments in the Great Lakes

Contaminated sediments are a significant problem in the Great Lakes basin.  Although significant progress over the past 20 years has substantially reduced the discharge of toxic and persistent chemicals to the Great Lakes, persistent high concentrations of contaminants in the bottom sediments of rivers and harbors have raised considerable concern about potential risks to aquatic organisms, wildlife, and humans. As a result, advisories against fish consumption are in place in most locations around the Great Lakes.

photo: Gull with crossed-bills
Gull with crossed-bills

These contaminated sediments have been created by decades of industrial and municipal discharges, combined sewer overflows, and urban and agricultural non-point source runoff.  Buried contaminants posing serious human and ecological health concerns can be resuspended by storms, ship propellers, and bottom-dwelling organisms.  Many of these small bottom-dwellers ingest toxins as they feed in the mud.  As larger animals eat these smaller animals, the toxins move up the food chain, with their concentrations getting higher, often thousands of times higher.  Fish at the top of the food chain, such as lake trout and salmon, can be unsafe to eat in some areas because of the heavy concentrations of toxic substances in their tissues.  Fish-eating birds, including the bald eagle, may suffer low reproductive rates or produce offspring with birth defects.

Problem harbor and tributary areas in the Great Lakes basin have been identified and labeled as "Areas of Concern" (AoCs). The 31 AoCs on the U.S. side of the basin are locations where uses are impaired for any one of 14 beneficial uses. To address these impairments, each AoC developed a Remedial Action Plan (RAP). All RAPs written to date have identified contaminated bottom sediments as a significant problem that must be addressed to attain beneficial uses. Before developing specific plans that detail how to remediate these contaminated sediment problems, it is critical to characterize the nature and extent of sediment contamination. Most AoCs, however, had access to only limited sediment information to assist them in addressing characterization and remediation questions.

Sediment Program Overview

Diagram showing triad support of contaminated sediment work
view larger photo
The link between contaminated sediment and water quality provides the basis for the U.S. EPA's Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) sediment program.  The Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972  declare as a national goal that all waters of the United States be made clean enough for fishing and swimming.  The Clean Water Act of 1977 seeks to secure “water quality which provides for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife, and provides for recreation in and out of the water.”  The 1978 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement has specific relevance to GLNPO’s mission.  The purpose of the Agreement is to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the waters of the Great Lakes basin ecosystem”.  This charges the USEPA, and GLNPO in particular, with the responsibility to ensure protection and restoration of Great Lakes habitat.

GLNPO has been responding in a number of ways to the need for gathering high-quality sediment information to assist AoCs in making remedial action decisions. GLNPO provides technical, financial, and field support for Federal, State, and Tribal partners to assist in addressing contaminated sediments and work aimed towards reaching remedial decisions and environmental restoration.


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