Monday, February 25, 2008

Let them eat fish --- from France to the Great Lakes pollution taints food chain

cross posted at Michigan Messenger

Saturday's Guardian reported on pollution in France's Rhone river. Apparently, a string of governments has ignored a serious PCB problem for more than 20 years. And this is horrible because poor people have eaten the contaminated fish. Sound familiar, Great Lakes readers?

What sets France's problem in relief is the thought of a highly toxic river flowing through "tourist spots such as the papal city of Avignon down to the Camargue delta." Could this be part of our problem with cleanup in Michigan -- our history is too short and unremarkable to evoke cultural incredulity over environmental toxins?

It should be bad enough that carcinogens have entered the food chain in Saginaw where African-American families routinely eat carp and catfish -- fish that are categorically not to be eaten, according to consumption advisories from the state. Just as it should be bad enough that poor immigrants in Lyon's suburbs have been buying and eating toxic carp from the Rhone. Either of these situations should inspire public outrage, outreach to local communities and aggressive cleanup efforts. This isn't about inferior cuisine; this is about the basic human right to safe food and water.

Someone in France sipping Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape and noshing on langres really should care about toxic carp in the Rhone not because of the taint on the region's tourist industry or culinary reputation, but as a simple matter of environmental justice. Someone sipping Lake Michigan Cabernet with some aged Pinconning likewise should care about toxic carp in the Saginaw River for the sake of the poor families trying to supplement their diets with fresh fish, nature's bounty for the resourceful.

Michigan may not have a papal city or wine culture dating back to the time of Buddha's enlightenment to inspire environmental stewardship, but it has the Great Lakes. These lakes cradle a long and remarkable history marked in geologic time. The world's largest freshwater resource was formed 10,000 years ago, and predates wine and cheese and democracy and the Buddha.

These lakes have sustained human communities for thousands of years, yet are gravely threatened by human industry of the last 150 years. They define our regional culture and heritage. We continue to depend on them for our survival. Our health depends on their health. Can we find a way back to a clean environment? Perhaps we can if we understand our place in the long arc of geologic history.

Photo by: Liam Gumley, Space Science and Engineering Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2003