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US, Canada sign Great Lakes water quality pact

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — The U.S. and Canada renewed a 40-year-old Great Lakes environmental pact Friday, pledging stepped-up efforts to reduce pollution, cleanse contaminated sites and prevent exotic species invasions.

The updated Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement binds both nations to continue a cleanup and restoration initiative begun when the freshwater seas were a symbol of ecological decay. Many of their beaches were littered with foul algae blooms and dead fish. The Cuyahoga River, which flows into Lake Erie in Cleveland, was so choked with oil and chemicals that flames erupted on its surface in 1969.

The pact calls for further action on problems that inspired the original agreement three years after the embarrassing river fire and a second version in 1987. It sets targets for reducing nutrients that cause foul algae blooms and recommends further cleanup of harbors contaminated with toxic chemicals.

"This agreement is more than just a commitment to each other," Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson said before signing the document with Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C.

"It is also a commitment to those who will come after us, showing them the importance of leaving the Great Lakes in better shape than they were when we inherited them," she said.

The new version includes new sections on challenges that have emerged more recently: climate change, loss of wildlife habitat and a wave of invasive species such as zebra and quagga mussels and Asian carp. It also calls for the region's governments to identify potential threats so they can be dealt with before developing into big problems.

"We've learned the hard way that we should not wait for damage to occur before we take action," Jackson said.

The agreement's success will depend on whether state and federal governments carry it out by enacting and enforcing strong laws and providing money, environmental activists said.

"Today we applaud," said John Jackson, director of a group called Great Lakes United. "Tomorrow we get to work."

President Barack Obama's administration has spent more than $1 billion on a Great Lakes restoration program and has requested $300 million for the current fiscal year. But Canada is eliminating hundreds of government scientist positions, and proposals have been made in both countries to weaken clean water laws, John Jackson said.

U.S. Sens. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, and Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, praised the agreement as co-chairmen of the Senate's Great Lakes Task Force.

"With its emphasis on prevention of environmental damage, the agreement reflects a more cost-effective use of resources, as preventing damage is generally less costly than cleaning up ruined ecosystems," Levin said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.