Local News

Survey suggests residents fear the contamination of St. Clair River

Photo courtesy of Jim Bloch Sarnia's Chemical Valley.

By Jim Bloch

Nearly 70 percent of residents along the U.S. side of the St. Clair River consider their drinking water to be good or very good.

But most of them worry about the possible contamination of the river through unreported chemical spills or permitted discharges into the river.

Those are among the key findings of a survey conducted by Friends of the St. Clair River in March of this year.

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The results are important because, among other factors, “restrictions on drinking water consumption” and “taste and odor problems” with the water is one of the 10 major impairments that led the St. Clair River to be listed as an “area of concern” in 1987 by the International Joint Commission. The IJC targeted 43 environmental hotspots in the Great Lakes basin, five of which were international, including the St. Clair River; 14 were in Michigan.

Eight of the 10 impairments on the U.S. side of the St. Clair River have been resolved. The two remaining impairments are restrictions on drinking water and restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption.

Sheri Faust, president of the Friends of the St. Clair River, hopes that the drinking water impairment can be resolved in 2022.

Faust discussed the survey’s results during a presentation about St. Clair River drinking water held via Zoom Oct. 19. The presentation was organized by the Friends group and featured water quality experts from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, SEMCOG, the Port Huron water plant and Bluewater Association for Safety, Environment and Sustainability.

The Friends received 419 responses to the 11-question survey.

The results will be used to inform community outreach and education, said Faust.

Seventy-six percent of respondents knew that the river — as opposed to groundwater, Lake Huron or Lake St. Clair — was the source of their drinking water. Tens of thousands of U.S. and Canadian residents rely on the water of the St. Clair River for drinking. On the U.S. side, water plants in Port Huron, Marysville, St. Clair, East China, Marine City and Algonac filter and purify the river water before its distributed into local homes and businesses.

“We also wanted people to rate their drinking water quality,” said Faust.

More than 67 percent rated their drinking water as good (39.38 percent) or very good (27.92 percent); another 25.54 percent said their water was average. Only 24 people — 5.73 percent — rated their water as below average. Only six people — 1.43 percent — said it was poor.

In fact, it’s likely that the river is cleaner today than at any time in the past 100 years.

“About 91 percent of survey respondents rated their drinking water as (average) or higher, indicating that they find their water to be pretty good,” said Faust.

Nonetheless, when asked if they were worried about drinking water contaminants, 368 people or 87.83 percent said, “Yes.”

Nearly 60 percent — 249 respondents — said their biggest concern was unreported spills. More than 54 percent — 228 people — said they were worried about permitted discharges.

“This surprised us a little bit since these don’t receive as much attention in the media as, say, PFAS or lead does,” said Faust.

A number of other possible contaminants caused concern: Bacteria, 53 percent; litter, 44 percent; lead, 44 percent; PFAS, 28 percent; copper, 26 percent. Twenty-two people mentioned other concerns, such as parasites, hexavalent chromium, prescription drugs disposed in the water, toxic underground waste, hormones and agricultural runoff.

“That’s what led us, in part, to put together the presentation, so we can dive deeper into understanding spills and discharges into the St. Clair River.”

One of the reasons for the improvement in the river water has been the dramatic decline in spills coming from Sarnia’s Chemical Valley.

The number of spills into the river dropped from over 100 per year in 1986, 1987 and 1989 to fewer than 20 per year 1994-2005. Of course, those later years were marked by two notorious spills: The two spills of vinyl chloride monomer by Royal Polymers Ltd. during the August blackout of 2003 and the Super Bowl spill of 2004 when Imperial Oil Ltd. released 85,700 kilograms of ketone in the river.

Spills dropped to zero in 2006-2010. There has not been a toxic spill from Canada into the river since 2016.

The number of municipal discharges of untreated or partially treated sewage on the Canadian side of the river plummeted 84 percent, 1978-2009, largely the result of projects to separate sanitary and storm sewers.

The U.S. data for spills and discharges mirrors the Canadian, Faust said.

Despite its progress, the St. Clair River still faces environmental problems. But chemical spills and sewer discharges do not pose the dangers they did 30 and 40 years ago.

Jim Bloch is a freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. Contact him at bloch.jim@gmail.com. 

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