Many theories have surfaced in the months since a three-eyed walleye fish affectionately dubbed "Third Eye Louie" was pulled out of Lake Nipissing. Some claimed the freak fish spawned from a nuclear spill or was the product of an old uranium mine. Others pointed to the cyanobacterial blooms in the lake and the sewage pollution from wastewater plants dotting its shores as the cause of the periscopic third eye.
While rare, it’s unlikely Louie is a Blinky—the character of a surreal Simpsons-like scenario. Since he’s the only one fished out of the lake to date, it stands to reason Louie’s third eye is simply a genetic mutation. Scientists agree. But something Third Eye Louie has helped do is drive attention to the larger issues at play in both Lake Nipissing and the Great Lakes Basin of which it is a part.
The Great Lakes Basin holds a fifth of the world’s surface fresh water and is home to more than 4,000 species, including 100 rare plants and animals, many of which are on the brink of extinction. It stretches 244,000 square kilometers, holds 5,000 tributaries and 30,000 islands. In short, the basin is the largest freshwater ecosystem on earth. And it’s under attack.
Each year, billions of litres of raw sewage are dumped into its waters by way of combined sewer overflows from antiquated wastewater systems and bypasses at municipal treatment plants. The latter process is a deliberate discharge that occurs during heavy rainstorms, spring snowmelt and power failures.
Despite proposed new legislation and large investments, including $653 million by the Ontario government since 2007 to municipal wastewater infrastructure upgrades, untreated sewage is still being dumped into local lakes at an alarming rate. Nipissing is no exception.
The issue at large, believes Liat Podolsky, is one that should make headlines more often. Ecojustice staff scientist and author of the organization’s latest Great Lakes Sewage Report Card, Podolsky says the goal of the research undertaken by she and her colleagues aims to bring awareness to an issue that rarely gets attention.
“Sewage is not a very sexy topic. It doesn’t get a lot of attention, which is why we want to get this information out there,” she says. “The fact that billions of litres of untreated or partially treated sewage are still going into the waters is a telling fact that the problem is not under control.”
In actuality, it’s out of control. Ontario government documents obtained by Ecojustice for the first report revealed that there were 144 significant bypass events in 2001 in Ontario alone. Many of these involved the release of hundreds of thousands of litres of raw sewage directly into the environment. The 20 cities examined in the 2006 report dumped more than 92 billion litres of raw sewage into the Great Lakes in one year. The statistics don’t seem to have improved.
Sewage pollution of the type infecting the Great Lakes Basin is a noxious cocktail of toxic chemicals, human waste, disease-causing pathogens, oils and heavy metals like mercury, cadmium and zinc. The effect this foul mix can have on humans, aquatic animals and the environment is concerning.
Equally alarming, perhaps, is the fact that chlorination is still the most common disinfection method used to treat wastewater. While a cost-effective measure that helps keep drinking water safe, chlorine and its byproducts are detrimental to aquatic life. Even in small amounts, chlorine can devastate the waters it saturates.
Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, chlorinated wastewater effluent was designated toxic. The new Wastewater System Effluent Regulations go a step further, imposing limits on the amount of residual chlorine that can be discharged in treatment plant effluent. Yet plants, like those on Lake Nipissing, continue to use chlorination as the primary means of treatment.
As pointed out in the Ecojustice report, municipal sewage treatment plants are inundated with wastewater from industrial operations, household cleaning supplies, and, perhaps scariest of all, pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs). Because there is no treatment for a significant number of these compounds, the ramifications of having PPCPs released into receiving waters unchecked is uncertain, though believed to be damaging to both humans and the environment.
Dr. Reehan Mirza, chair of Nipissing University’s biology department, points out that because the Ministry of the Environment does not have methods to monitor the compounds in question, little is known about what impact PPCPs have on the ecosystems they infiltrate. What is known for certain, says he, is that the affected lakes will more than likely have an inordinate amount of female fish.
“A lot of these compounds tend to be estrogen mimics. The major effect that you’re seeing in aquatic life is this whole issue of feminization, where the male organs are not developing and you see more either female-like organisms or organisms where testes and ovaries are not differentiated. When that happens, those fish are not viable and they’re not going to be able to reproduce.”
From a bio-chemical perspective, however, Mirza does not see sewage pollution as the lead threat to aquatic life in Lake Nipissing. Over the last few years, cyanobacteria, more commonly known as blue-green algae, has been found blooming in various parts of the lake.
“Basically, because you have these toxins in the water, your microsystems that are produced by the blue-green algae are highly toxic. It’s something that’s quite systemic all over different parts of Lake Nipissing,” says Mirza. “The microsystems will basically act on the liver and they can affect the nervous system as well.”
According to Health Canada, humans exposed to cyanobacterial toxins can develop long-term or chronic illnesses. Some neurodegenerative diseases, like ALS, have been linked to blue-green algae exposure. More common symptoms include headache, nausea and vomiting. Aquatic and terrestrial animals exposed to the toxins are likely to become severely ill or die.
Marianna Couchie, chief of the Nipissing First Nation, cites a laundry list of issues, including blue-green algae, affecting the waters of her beloved community. Invasive species, the depletion of the walleye fishery, fertilizers from surface runoff, 1,800 ice shacks in inter with no toilets and uranium mine tailings on the shores of Yellick all roll off her tongue with a tone that borders anxiety and anger.
In addition to having a staff biologist exploring what’s going on and wrong with the lake, the Nipissing First Nation has started hosting the Lake Nipissing Summit, which brings experts, scientists and other concerned parties to the table to discuss the issues at play. They are also working closely with Nipissing University and investing $250,000 a year to draft possible solutions for environmental sustainability. “No one else is doing that,” Couchie says.
To speak to the chief is to get a snapshot of the grave state of Lake Nipissing. Couchie reflects longingly of a time not so long ago when the lake was clean enough to drink, painting a pastoral picture of a more peaceful place. “I remember when I grew up as child you could drink the water from Lake Nipissing. Never thought about it,” she recalls, adding: “Brought along a cup in your boat and when you were thirsty you picked up a cup of water and drank that. Today I wouldn’t do such a thing.”