100-year-old treaty may help resolve conflict on nuclear waste disposal near Lake Huron

Part 2 in a two-part series

A proposal by the Canadian public utility Ontario Power Generation to store nuclear waste in a rock chamber 2,000 feet below ground and less than a mile from Lake Huron has sparked bi-national controversy. Now a group of Michigan legislators believe a 100-year-old treaty may provide a mechanism for resolution.

Part 1 of this series outlined the details of the Ontario Power Generation proposal and the debate surrounding it. Part 2 will examine the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and its historic role in resolving bi-national disputes related to the Great Lakes.

The Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 was established during a time of rapid industrialization across North America. Both Canada and the United States relied heavily on Great Lakes resources to supply growing industries and cities with fresh water. Rising water demand provoked new conflict between the two nations. The Boundary Waters Treaty provided a mechanism to prevent and resolve disputes within the boundary waters. The treaty also established the International Joint Commission (IJC) as an independent organization with bi-national representation to regulate water use and provide objective recommendations on trans-boundary issues. The IJC has weighed in on a number of controversial topics in Great Lakes management in the past including invasive species, harmful algal blooms and water diversion.

Article IX of the treaty allows either the United States or Canadian government to refer questions related to the “rights, obligations, or interests” of the two counties within the boundary waters to the IJC for review. In these cases the commission is charged with researching the issue of dispute and submitting reports and recommendations to both the U.S. and Canadian governments.

Michigan leadership in Congress has proposed legislation that would require the State Department to invoke the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and request an IJC investigation into the potential risks of the planned nuclear waste storage chamber. Under the proposed legislation the State Department would also negotiate with the Canadian government in an effort to delay approval of a storage chamber until the conclusion of the IJC study. The Senate bill has been referred to the Foreign Relations committee.

The Great Lakes are one of the world’s most successful examples of bi-national management of a major natural resources in part because of the principles established by the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909. In more recent years the Boundary Waters Treaty has laid the groundwork for several Great Lakes restoration and conservation efforts including the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Michigan Sea Grant helps to foster economic growth and protect Michigan’s coastal, Great Lakes resources through education, research and outreach. A collaborative effort of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of 33 university-based programs.

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