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Hazardous Waste Sites on Lake Michigan Shores Face Climate Threats, Report Warns

Lake Michigan’s shoreline communities face “toxic risks,” says a new report, as extreme weather threatens to damage waste storage sites, nuclear power plants, and industrial facilities in the area.

“Climate change is causing more extreme Lake Michigan water levels,” says the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) report. “High water levels, combined with stronger winds and heavier storms, are causing erosion, beach loss, and damage to residential, commercial, and industrial areas all along the shore. Many sites have toxic materials that pose risks to communities and the lake—risks that need to be understood and viewed in the context of a changing climate.”

The report used U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data to determine how far flood waters would encroach on sites as lake levels rise. It found several areas at particular risk along a 100-kilometre corridor from Gary, Indiana, to the Wisconsin border. The corridor hosts a heavily industrialized lakefront in Gary, Superfund hazardous waste sites in Waukegan, Illinois, as well as the now-closed Zion Nuclear Power plant, which has nuclear waste stored near the lakeshore farther north in Illinois. Some lower-risk locations include a coal plant in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and a wastewater treatment plant in South Haven, Michigan, writes Great Lakes Now.

“It’s time for us to rethink the Great Lakes shoreline’s built environment to reassess the risks from industrial facilities with hazardous materials, as well as to our homes,” said ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner.

ELPC recommends reassessing vulnerable sites, evaluating risks of new projects, investing in green infrastructure, and deploying federal funds and resources to mitigate and adapt to climate threats. Funding could also come from increased federal investment in the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and from U.S. President Joe Biden’s $1-billion infrastructure bill.

“Mitigating climate change requires strong public and private sector actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Great Lakes states, our nation, and countries around the world,” the report says. “Adapting to extreme water levels will require significant federal, state, and local financial investments and fundamental policy shifts.”