The Unfulfilled Promise of ‘Zero Discharge’ into Public Waters

An activist reflects on progress after 50 years of the Clean Water Act


Above: Aerial view of White Lake near Montague, Michigan, with Duck Lake visible to the south. (Photo/Doc Searls)


By Tanya Cabala

I was a young adult before I knew anything about the Clean Water Act, its passage in 1972, its relationship to my community, or even its initial promise of “zero discharge,” still unfulfilled to this day. 

The lack of good environmental laws, and lax oversight and enforcement of the weak laws we had, gave rise to the unfortunate circumstances people in my community encountered as chemical companies and municipalities discharged wastes into our local West Michigan lake—White Lake the Beautiful, as I and some other locals call it, going all the back to a tannery in 1865 and then the infamous Hooker Chemical Company in the 1950s.

Citizens eventually prevailed when the Clean Water Act was nearly a decade old, and then others, including me, took up the banner and advocated for the cleanup of White Lake for several decades, eventually succeeding and getting it removed from a list of Great Lakes Areas of Concern in 2014. 

Tanya Cabala and her dogs at home near White Lake in West Michigan (Photo courtesy of Tanya Cabala)

Some people finally rose up to protest in the 1970s, and were told to be quiet to keep jobs in the community. Citizens eventually prevailed when the Clean Water Act was nearly a decade old, and then others, including me, took up the banner and advocated for the cleanup of White Lake for several decades, eventually succeeding and getting it removed from a list of Great Lakes Areas of Concern in 2014. 

Taking Direct Action for Zero Discharge

I was recently in Traverse City, and as I drove along Grand Traverse Bay, I remembered the fall of 1991, when I was standing right there, with many others, calling for zero discharge of pollutants into public waters, for once and for all. As a new staffer then for the Lake Michigan Federation (now the Alliance for the Great Lakes), I marched along the bay, listened to speakers with all the Great Lakes groups present, and attended the meetings of the International Joint Commission, the binational panel of appointees overseeing the U.S. and Canadian governments’ implementation of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

I was glad for the visit by Greenpeace activists and for the campaign, as it put the term “zero discharge” into the news, and into the vernacular. I was not one to scale a smokestack, but I could understand how groups taking direct action could benefit the work I was doing.

It was the second such biennial meeting open to the public, and there was great interest in attending. Greenpeace, the international environmental organization, was in attendance, the final stop of its Great Lakes campaign for zero discharge, after having visited my community near White Lake, scaling the smokestack of the local paper mill, and unfurling a zero discharge banner. They were arrested, and it made news. I was glad for the visit by Greenpeace activists and for the campaign, as it put the term “zero discharge” into the news, and into the vernacular. I was not one to scale a smokestack, but I could understand how groups taking direct action could benefit the work I was doing.

Finally we could say the words, “zero discharge,” and hopefully get more work done in our own communities. In Traverse City, Greenpeace unfurled another banner from the top of the Grand Traverse Resort where the meetings were held, and group members  stalked the meetings indoors wearing animal head costumes. Again, I was not one to do this, but I could see clearly how it pushed the agenda for us all in the right direction. It provided a necessary complement to those, like me, providing their testimony in more of the expected (and less interesting) manner.

Teach Your Children Well

I am much older now, but still working as an activist, still hoping to see the changes we need, the progress we need. I won’t deny there have been many successes with the Clean Water Act in place. But still, the zero discharge promise is unfulfilled as polluted runoff from land continues, and new water quality problems like PFAS emerge (amid the crisis of climate change exacerbating it all), threatening my White Lake the Beautiful, my community’s lake, my children’s and grandchildren’s future. (And the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to “shrink” the power and promise of the Clean Water Act).

We need to teach them—our children and grandchildren—well while they are young. We need to keep what we have regained. And we need to consider all the ways that we can work together, most especially through direct action. We need to act like we are in a crisis. Because we are.

We need to teach them—our children and grandchildren—well while they are young. We need to keep what we have regained, our clean White Lake, and all the other rivers and lakes restored to good health. And we need to consider all the ways that we can work together, most especially through direct action. We need to act like we are in a crisis. Because we are.


About the author: Tanya Cabala lives in her childhood home in Whitehall, Michigan, in northern Muskegon County, with her two dogs, Bella and Barney. A grandmother and the Lakeshore Outreach Organizer for West Michigan Environmental Action Council, she is delighted to be working with energetic movers and shakers along the West Michigan lakeshore, educating on protecting water and encouraging action on climate change.

2 comments on “The Unfulfilled Promise of ‘Zero Discharge’ into Public Waters

  1. John Hartig on

    Thanks Tanya. We need another zero discharge spring. We need continuous and vigorous oversight of zero discharge and virtual elimination, and to hold government’s and industry’s feet to the fire!

    Reply
  2. Marcia Hunt on

    As a Realtor for 23 yrs and a former scuba diver I have been the unwilling witness to water pollution. Here in MI chemical fertilizers and insecticides and herbicides have contaminated our local aquifers, lakes, streams, river in measurable amounts.
    Also I am aware of the MANY sewage outfalls into the great lakes and rivers, as well as along the ocean shoreline. It’s despicable. The EPA is a joke and has been for decades.

    Reply

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An activist reflects on progress after 50 years of the Clean Water Act