Great Lakes Day on Parliament Hill

Great Lakes Day at Parliament Hill Reception
Ottawa
As prepared for delivery.

It is a pleasure to be here this evening to celebrate the importance of the Great Lakes region to both of our countries.

You don’t need me to tell you how the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway are a deeply important environmental and economic resource shared between the United States and Canada. I think the numbers speak for themselves.

The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater system in the world. They comprise 84% of North America’s surface freshwater, and provide drinking water for more than 40 million people.
Each year, 200 million tons of cargo – worth billions of dollars – passes through the great lakes. All this trade has supported 5.5 million jobs in the region in distribution, business services, e-commerce, and education clusters.

These lakes are critically important for both our economies. They support tourism, shipping, and commercial and sports fishing.

Just two weeks ago, many of us heard firsthand exactly how important these waters are to stakeholders living in the Great Lakes region during the Public Forum in Toronto.

The Public Forum underscored the importance of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, an agreement between the United States and Canada, which has resulted in a joint commitment by both nations this summer to reduce Lake Erie phosphorus loads by 40 per cent.

Throughout the week, we heard many concerns and impassioned pleas for action — but, we also heard the positive stories as well.

Now, I won’t speak to the many wonderful initiatives underway on the Canadian shorelines of the Great Lakes — but I will comment on the U.S. side of the waters. And as a Chicagoan, I can tell you I feel personally invested in what we’re doing — together — to address these challenges.

Many cities in the region started as industrial centers, at a time before we understood and appreciated the true ecological value of our shared waters.

Chicago, like many Upper Midwestern cities, is historically an industrial city. From the 1800s through the mid-1990s, factories, mills, refineries, and chemical plants dominated the shorelines, and generated a substantial volume of industrial waste.

Ambassador Heyman attends Great Lakes Day on Parliament Hill. Credit US Embassy Ottawa.
Ambassador Heyman attends Great Lakes Day on Parliament Hill. Credit US Embassy Ottawa.

We polluted the Great Lakes, and we now have to fix them. We’ve made tremendous progress cleaning up the shorelines, with the remediation of factories and building new wastewater treatment plans.

One U.S. cleanup initiative that I’d like to highlight is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Launched in 2010, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative served as a catalyst — to accelerate and make tangible progress in protecting and restoring this important ecosystem.

An Interagency Task Force, led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, strategically targeted some of the greatest threats in the lakes. They prioritized the cleanup of toxic and contaminated sites, known as Areas of Concern. They prioritized the mitigation of invasive species, the restoration of wetlands, and the reduction of pollution runoff entering waters.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funded over 2,000 projects that contributed to improved water quality, restored habitat, and mitigation of invasive species and other environmental issues in the Great Lakes.

In the 25 years before this Initiative was implemented, only one Area of Concern was cleaned up and delisted. With the injection of resources and unprecedented coordination amongst agencies — at all levels of government, and including stakeholder organizations and industry — we’ve been able to formally delist three Areas of Concern and fund the cleanup actions required to delist five more.

One Area of Concern, Waukegan Harbor, in my home state of Illinois is a great example of these efforts. Three years ago, federal and state agencies worked together to dredge more than 150,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the harbor — removing toxins such as PCBs from the ecosystem.

We should celebrate these successes, but also recognize that we have a lot more work to do.

I would like to thank everyone here this evening for your dedication to the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Seaway. Finding common solutions to the challenges that we face is essential to ensuring the best use and protection of these shared resources.