I arrived back home on Friday night from the Great Lakes Need Great Friends event in Port Elgin, a quaint town surrounded by cottage homes on the breathtaking shores of Lake Huron.
The event was the sixth stop of the 2013 Great Lakes speaking tour with stops already in Duluth (WI), Milwaukee (WI), Grand Rapids (MI), Toronto and Rochester (NY). The tour originally began last year with events in eight cities including Owen Sound, Sarnia and Kingston.
Organized by Save Our Saugeen Shores, the event was standing room only with 470 people packed into the second floor of the Port Elgin Plex.
Cheryl Grace, an organizer for local groups Save Our Saugeen Shores and the Bluewater Coalition, introduced the speakers and gave an overview of the issues.
The residents of Port Elgin and Southampton – a region known as Saugeen Shores - are at the heart of a dilemma facing the Great Lakes. Saugeen Shores is one of twenty one communities being assessed as a potential site for burying high level nuclear waste as the long term storage solution for Canada’s nuke waste problem. Saugeen Shores faces another problem – the Nuclear Waste Management Organization along with Ontario Power Generation (OPG) have put forward a plan to bury low and intermediate level waste roughly 30 kilometres south of Saugeen Shores underneath the Bruce Power Plant in Kincardine, Ontario. The low and intermediate level deep geologic repository – or what’s known as DGR 1 to local residents and those well versed in the issue – would be located within a kilometre of the shores of Lake Huron raising grave concerns about water contamination and the health and safety of the lakes. Opponents are also warning that DGR1 would set a precedent and page the way for DGR2 or the high level nuke waste dump. According to Bruce Power’s own documents, Southhampton’s water already had tritium levels seven times that of the provincial average in 2012.
Some residents have been working on protecting Lake Huron from nuke waste for years. They are an extremely committed and inspiring group; their passion to protect the waters of the Great Lakes is infectious.
Sierra Club’s Mary Muter was the first in the night’s spectacular line up of speakers. She gave an informative presentation about the alarmingly low water levels, the dredging of the St. Clair River and what we need to do to save the Lakes rapidly receding shorelines.
National Chairperson for the Council of Canadians Maude Barlow provided context to the declining Great Lakes by outlining the global water crisis and warning that by 2030 demand will outstrip supply by 40 percent. She spoke about specific issues threats to the Great Lakes such as tar sands pipelines, including the ones running through the Straits of Mackinac, the nuke dumps, bottled water withdrawals and fracking. Barlow talked about the need for a new water ethic where water is at the centre of environmental, energy, food and other policies. Water must be recognized as a human right, public trust and commons which means that no one is allowed to abuse, pollute or appropriate the Lakes. We collectively share the lakes and have a responsibility to protect them. Barlow clearly stated a need to shift our relationship to water and the way that water is managed and concluded that the nuke dumps are an “act of insanity.”
Sarnia mayor Mike Bradley – one of the most vocal opponents to the recently defeated nuke waste shipment – told the audience that the risk of the DGRs were too great for the Lakes warning that “we cannot keep playing Russian Roulette with the Great Lakes.” Mayor Bradley had biting words for the Saugeen Shores council saying that he couldn’t tell the difference between the local council and OPG.
Saugeen First Nation Chief Randall Kahgee had simple yet profound words for the audience saying that “for all of us, water is life.” Hesaid that he felt a responsibility to do everything in his power to protect the waters of the Great Lakes for tomorrow’s generations so that his children and his grand children don't ask why he didn’t do anything to protect the water and air. Under the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, governments have an obligation to obtain free, prior and informed consent and Chief Kahgee vowed that without free, prior and informed consent, the DGRs would not happen.
Brockton Councillor Chris Peabody spoke last, a lone councillor in the region raising concerns about the potential harms of the DGRs.
It showed that the audience was deeply moved by the presentation, with some near tears throughout the talks. The DGRs are a heated topic in this and other communities. With Bruce Power being the main employer in the region, the town is deeply divided. Yet the receding shorelines that are an ever increasingly problem are a stark reminder that the Great Lakes are not limitless and immune to our actions. If there is one thing to take away from Maude Barlow's speech it’s that a new water ethic is critical for saving the Great Lakes. We must ensure that the protection of water is paramount in energy policies. The time to begin that is now and the issue to begin with is the nuke dumps.
To view photos from our visit, click here.