Can We Meet the Majesty of Lake Superior?

An Interview with Author Nancy Langston

A big lake requires a big book.  Lake Superior, the largest lake by surface area in the world, now has one.  Nancy Langston’s Sustaining Lake Superior: An Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World offers a sweeping panorama of the lake’s environmental history, its present challenges and a glimpse of the future.  A professor at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Langston is a highly regarded environmental historian and analyst who moved to her current post in part to be closer to the big lake. 


We asked Nancy to talk about her book, which is available for purchase via Nancy is donating all proceeds she receives from book sales (after costs) to local nonprofits working to protect and restore Lake Superior and the other Great Lakes.  So far, she has donated proceeds to the Keweenaw Climate Community, Friends of the Lands of the Keweenaw, and the Great Lakes Research Center Student Fund. She’s happy to do book talks and signing for Great Lakes groups and donate the profits from book sales to the local group. Email her to arrange this:


If you could boil your book’s message down to a paragraph, what would it be?

Here are two paragraphs:  we are not remote; and we are not pristine—and we can learn from past recoveries.

Lake Superior may seem remote, but its waters are intimately connected to the rest of the world. Atmospheric currents bring chemicals from China, and pressures to mine iron ore in the basin are driven not by local or national markets, but by a boom in China’s steel industry. Yet, while the processes that shape contamination have global roots, the effects are local. Mountain-top removal mining for China’s iron ore demands would devastate local wetlands that have sustained the Anishinaabeg for many generations. The toxaphene from Chinese, Russian, and African fields accumulates in the fish that swim under my cliff and makes its way onto my plate. What is global—financial markets, building booms, industrial farming practices in places with few environmental regulations—becomes local in the most intimate ways, as it accumulates within our watersheds and within our bodies.

Everyone thinks Lake Superior is pristine, but it’s not. Lake Superior has witnessed significant recoveries in my generation, after near collapse during rapid 20th century industrialization of the Great Lakes. Forests and many of their inhabitants have returned after the devastation of the lumber era. The toxic waste sites left after the paper and mining booms have partially been cleaned up. Lake trout—once nearly extinct– spawn abundantly in the lake once more, one of conservation’s great success stories. None of these recoveries is complete, to be sure—but we can learn from the conservation recoveries of Lake Superior over the past century, as we face new challenges of persistent pollutants that are mobilizing with climate change. Communities around Lake Superior have long struggled to address pollution concerns, and local, regional, and international efforts met with significant successes in the late 20th century. Exploring the success—and failures–of pollution control in the past can help us devise resilient strategies for facing the challenges of pollution in a globalized, warming world.


How long has the book been in the making and what inspired you to write it?  Is it true you moved to Michigan Tech because you want to be close to Lake Superior?

I fell in love with Lake Superior in 2003, when I bought a tiny cabin on the shore just outside the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. This was really just a shed without running water or heat or electricity, and there’s still no place on earth I’d rather be. I’ve spent at least four months in the cabin every year since. (Since then, I’ve put in electricity, but we still haul water from the village artesian well and harvest rainwater from the roof for showers). At the time, I was a faculty member at UW-Madison, living on my husband’s small farm south of the city and commuting to Lake Superior every chance I got.

The summer of 2010, I started research on an environmental history of boreal forests, with one case study focused on Lake Superior’s forests. I spent a month that summer in different small communities around the Canadian shore of Lake Superior, researching the history of the paper industry and kayaking when I wasn’t in the archives. That fall, I joined the Lake Superior Binational Forum, a public stakeholder group tasked with implementing the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement’s core idea that citizen oversight could protect the lake and foster sustainable development. A Binational Forum visit to the Pic River First Nation reserve near Marathon Ontario in November introduced me to the concerns that Anishinaabeg communities had about new mining projects.

In early 2011, soon after Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker began his deconstruction of the environmental protections that had made Wisconsin famous, I joined a group of academics who visited the Mole Lake Sokaogon tribe in northern Wisconsin. In the 1990s, the tribe had defeated a mine project just upstream of the reservation. My colleagues and I were eager to learn how the tribe had translated their health concerns into political action. As the meeting began a dozen leaders from another tribe, the Bad River Band, filed into the crowded room. They had driven three hours to recruit allies in their fight against an enormous open pit mine proposed near their reservation. Much of the discussion at our meeting with the Mole Lake Sokaogon and Bad River band members revolved around technical details of sulfide oxidation, pyrite ore bodies, and water quality.

But then tribal members began to speak about why they were going to fight the mine. “When I was twenty years old, I was riding on the sloughs in a john boat,” tribal chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. said. “Riding on about four bags of rice, nice soft bags. I was dragging my hand in the Kakagon. There were all kinds of birds, and dark water in the slough. I’m dragging my hand in there, I’m looking at how it colors my hand. I was just so in love with that river. I set nets for walleye, harvested cranberries in the fall and wild rice. I was thinking, ‘I wonder if it will always be there, for my children?’ I was thinking, ‘If something ever came for this place, man, I’d fight for this place, I’d die for this place.’”

That was the moment that I realized I wanted to do what I could to help protect Lake Superior—and that meant living within the watershed full time. I decided to leave UW-Madison and I decided to focus the book on Lake Superior, particularly on contamination from mining and paper production. When Michigan Tech opened the Great Lakes Research Center and searched for several interdisciplinary water scholars, I was thrilled to have the chance to move north.


How has the sheer size of Lake Superior shaped the way in which both industry and government have addressed its use and management?

Lake Superior’s particular geographic context—it is huge, northern, extremely cold, and distant from industrial developments—means that it is still the least spoiled of all the Great Lakes. Yet the very characteristics that have made Lake Superior less contaminated from conventional pollutants such as sewage and industrial waste actually make it more vulnerable to the persistent toxic contaminants that have mobilized across the globe since World War Two.

Fewer local sources of contaminants no longer mean better water quality when pollutants are increasingly mobile. Because Lake Superior is so huge and has only one outlet, it has a retention time of nearly two centuries. This means that a drop of water, on average, stays in the lake for 191 years—and contaminants can as well. Lake Superior is extremely cold, with an average annual temperature of 39°F. The cold water and the abundant winter ice cover lead to relatively low evaporation. So when toxics carried by atmospheric currents from Africa, Asia, and the lower Great Lakes find their way into Lake Superior, they tend to stick around. Lake Superior, like other cold northern lakes, has become a sink for the world’s most distant and toxic contaminants. Toxics long banned in North American arrive windblown from distant places. Toxics from the past lie buried in sediments, stirred up into the water column by storms and bottom-feeding creatures. Pollutants in the lake blur the boundaries of space and time.

Early planners hoped that the sheer size of the lake would mean that pollution would be diluted to the point of safety. They essentially thought of Lake Superior as a big bathtub, not realizing that it’s a complicated set of interconnecting ecosystems, and pollution can be concentrated in near-shore habitats, where fish and people are easily contaminated.


The Lake Superior zero discharge demonstration program, which was intended to end the direct dumping of some priority toxic substances into the lake, was heralded as a model when it was launched in 1991.  How would you characterize its success or failure?

Its successes were largely aspirational. We were going to show the world that the largest lake could be cleaned of legacy contaminants and protected from new sources of contamination. The IJC challenged the governments of the United States and Canada to “make the Lake Superior Basin a zero discharge demonstration zone for all point sources of persistent toxic substances.” The governments agreed, committing to achieve “zero discharge and zero emission” of all persistent toxics in the Lake Superior Basin and creating the Binational Program, administered by federal, provincial, state and tribal agencies. As part of that process, the Lake Superior Binational Forum was created, a volunteer stakeholder group comprised of members with diverse backgrounds that represent a wide range of perspectives such as local government, industry and business, labor, academic, faith communities, recreation, environmental, and indigenous communities. The Forum’s purpose was to ensure the success of the Zero Discharge Demonstration Zone by fostering increased participation, acting as a watchdog group, and screening proposed actions to make certain they were in accordance with the LaMP and Zero Discharge Demonstration Program principles. These were hopeful, heady days for environmentalists and Forum members (I served on the Binational Forum for 6 years, from 2010 to 2016, when the EPA eliminated our funding).

But the zero discharge program hasn’t worked. Every IJC Biennial Report released between 1993 and 2003, and every response by Parties, shows the same discouraging pattern. First, the IJC criticizes the Parties for failing to eliminate toxic discharges—or even set timetables for their elimination. Next, the Parties give excuses for failing to do so. For example, in 1994 the IJC pointed out that “the governments have not taken a single concrete action to implement their zero discharge promise.” When the 1994 IJC Report called on the United States to “establish a coordinated, planned phase-out of existing sources” of dioxin, the U.S. insisted that they would not require the paper and pulp industry to eliminate dioxin, or even install “the best technology in process and treatment.” Instead, the EPA would challenge industry to “voluntarily reduce generation of toxic substances.” The U.S. added that setting a specific date for toxic elimination “may, in fact, detract” from voluntary agreements by industry.” Canada refused as well to adopt a specific timetable, using the same logic as the United States: a timeline might interfere with “consensus amongst the stakeholders around the Lake Superior basin.”

In most IJC biennial reports on the progress of zero discharge and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement,  the IJC urges both parties to prohibit new sources of bioaccumulative, persistent toxics—and each country has simply refused to do so. For example, after news of the Grassy Narrows tragedy with mercury poisoning of First Nations, the IJC urged an immediate stop to mercury discharges from chlor-alkali plants such as the ones at Grassy Narrows. Canada responded by stating that it would “discourage” mercury use through voluntary programs– but refused to eliminate the release of mercury into Lake Superior. Canada’s last chlor-alkali plant didn’t close until 2008, 15 years after this assurance that voluntary programs were leading to their closure.

The pattern continued with mercury from smelter emissions, such as the sintering plant at Wawa on the northern shore of Lake Superior, a plant that caused extensive forest dieback and mercury releases. In 1991, the IJC called for an immediate end to mercury releases from mining and smelting. Canada responded by stating that it would suggest to a committee that it might consider looking into recommendations for reduction of mercury emissions from smelters.

A few years later, the United States decided the best way to eliminate its problematic mercury releases into mercury in Lake Superior would be by re-defining dangerous levels of mercury—not by reducing mercury.  The United States proposed to increase the “safe” daily intake level of mercury by a factor of five, allowing it to declare dramatic reductions in dangerous mercury levels. At the same time, however, the United Nations was consulting on research that led to a call for a four-fold decrease, not a five-fold increase, in the safe daily dose.

When the two Parties refused to implement immediate bans on toxic discharges, the IJC urged them to start by setting timetables for zero discharge. Environment Canada responded with a firm no: “The federal government does not support the recommendation ….Full account must also be taken of such factors as socio-economic impact.” Canada continued, insisting, “It is premature to set a date for zero discharge. It should be remembered that the Lake Superior initiative is a pilot program…It is a complex initiative requiring the continued commitment of many stakeholders. Achieving the program goal will not be a simple task.”[i] Stakeholders and ecosystem complexities, in other words, had become an excuse—not just to refuse upholding their commitments to zero discharge, but to refuse even the basic task of setting timetables for upholding their commitments.

The utter failures of Zero Discharge point out the fundamental flaw in voluntary reduction programs: they don’t work unless governments have a very big stick, not just a tasty carrot. Essentially, Zero Discharge has failed for the same reason the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreements have failed: politicians don’t want to rock the industrial boat, and they won’t until grassroots activists and scientists force them to do so.


Please tell us how indigenous peoples figure in your narrative.

The Anishinaabeg are core to every aspect of Lake Superior’s past, present, and future. Talking with Anishinaabeg people from around the basin helped me understand that framing Lake Superior as “remote” is a Eurocentric perspective. Lake Superior may have been remote from urban centers, but it was—and remains—at the very center of the Anisnihaabeg’s home.

Transforming Canada’s boreal forests into pulp devastated Canadian First Nations. The 19th century mining booms around Lake Superior displaced and marginalized Indigenous peoples, and Indigenous peoples lead the 21st century fights against renewed mining.

Pollution impacts everyone, human and nonhuman—but it’s particularly an issue for Indigenous peoples around the basin, who cannot eat the fish that are central to their cultural, spiritual, and physical health.


Who are some of the heroes in the effort to sustain Lake Superior?

Mike Wiggins, Jr., Chairman of the Bad River Band, for his passionate devotion to Lake Superior and to tribal treaty rights.

When I explored the history of earlier battles over water contamination, I found a similar passion for the lake. I learned about fierce women such as Verna Mize and Arlene Lehto who channeled their love for Lake Superior into political action, creating grassroots movements in the 1960s and 1970s to stop the dumping of tailings contaminated with asbestiform fibers into the lake. Few observers initially thought Mize or Lehto had a chance, daring to take on one of the largest mining corporations in the world. But they eventually leveraged scientific information with political savvy, and their grassroots efforts persuaded the brand-new Environmental Protection Agency to sue Reserve Mining Company. Eventually, after years of legal battles, the company agreed to change its dumping practices, cleaning up lake contamination without destroying the region’s economy. Charles Stoddard was another hero in the battle, who put his own career with the Department of Interior on the line to speak truth to power. The aquatic biologist Louis Williams did the same, refusing to be silent about Reserve’s contamination of public waters. When the federal government refused to let him publish his scientific findings, he quit his job so he could publish. This took real courage, and all their efforts led to a much cleaner lake.


Are environmental groups addressing the right issues in the right way when it comes to assisting Lake Superior?

Environmental groups right now are so overwhelmed with the federal and state assaults on basic, commonsense environmental protections, that it’s hard just to keep from drowning. These are tough times for anyone who understands the slightest bit of science. These are tough times for anyone who has spent their lifetime in the pursuit of clean air, clean water, healthy forests, healthy communities.

But we have to fight back in whatever ways we can manage.  I have no idea if different environmental groups are addressing the right issues in the right way, since at this point we’re being attacked on all fronts. All we can do is keep fighting, in whatever ways we can manage, to stem the tide of destruction.

My goal in writing Sustaining Lake Superior was to write a hopeful book—a narrative of environmental recovery, not just collapse and despair. But holding onto hope can seem perverse when you read recent environmental news. Accelerating climate change has been met with withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. Environmental and labor regulations that took forty years to craft are being eviscerated. A tenth of newborn children in the Lake Superior basin are born with toxic levels of mercury in their blood, but EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has suspended the mercury control regulations that would protect them. Even though The Lancet recently reported that 9 million people a year die prematurely from pollution, the EPA has removed scientists from the its Science Advisory Board and instead appointed a person who claims that “the air is currently too clean,” because “children’s lungs need to breathe irritants.”

Pruitt and President Trump share a key quality: not just an aversion to environmental protection, but a willingness to deny that the environment even needs protection. Trump declared to Chris Wallace of Fox News, “Environmental protection, what they do is a disgrace; every week they come out with new regulations.” When Wallace asked “Who’s going to protect the environment?,” Trump scoffed, “We’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit, but you can’t destroy businesses.”

So what we do we do? Hope is hard to find, but hope is critical if we are to keep up the resistance. Communities around the basin continue to advocate for a powerful vision of sustainability, one where health is not just about individuals, but about the interconnected relationships between watersheds and communities. If folks in the trenches refuse to give up hope, the least we can do is join them in their efforts.


Do you think we have learned the lessons of Lake Superior’s history or are we condemned to repeat them?

Nancy Langston

We are repeating all the earlier mistakes, this time without the excuse of ignorance. The federal government has set out to destroy all we hold sacred, and Michigan and Wisconsin seem determined to assist them at every step.  

One lesson from history: industry has never protected the environment out of the goodness of its heart. Industry protects the environment when governments force them to do so, and governments act when citizens force them to act. So the best lesson we can learn, over and over again, from Lake Superior’s past, is to resist. As Margaret Atwood reminds us in The Handmaid’s Tale: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

[i]. “The Parties, in cooperation with Lake Superior states and provinces, establish a specific date at which no point source release of any persistent toxic substances will be permitted into Lake Superior or its tributaries.” International Joint Commission, Fifth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality (1991). Environment Canada, Canada’s Response to the Sixth Biennial Report 6, 8.

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An Interview with Author Nancy Langston