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Threatening the Great Lakes

Nov 13, 2017

The principle a doctor is supposed to follow in dealing with patients is, “first, do no harm.” The most valuable natural resource this state and region has is undoubtedly the Great Lakes. They contain twenty percent of the world’s surface fresh water. They mean billions of dollars every year in recreational boating and fishing and other activities.

Damage them beyond repair, and we are finished. You would think if “first, do no harm” ought to apply anywhere, it would be here. But that’s not how we’ve been acting.

Our politicians have been putting the Great Lakes, and all of us, under unconscionable risk for the benefit of rich corporations. My colleagues at Michigan Radio do a superb job of covering the environment, and anyone who has been listening knows that if Pipeline 5 under the Straits of Mackinac were to break, Lakes Huron and Michigan would likely be irreparably damaged.

That pipeline is sixty-four years old, and we’ve learned that Enbridge, the Canadian firm that owns it, concealed news about flaws in its protective coating.

We also know Enbridge owned a pipeline that broke near the Kalamazoo River seven years ago, and that the company at first mishandled the crisis, which eventually cost more than a billion dollars to clean up. Pipeline 5 needs to be taken out of service today. But the politicians dither, and we and all future generations are being put at needless risk.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the legislature has now passed a horrible bill that would certainly put the lakes, and again all of us, at increased risk from invasive species. For eight years I was critical of President Obama for not doing enough to prevent Asian carp from getting into the lakes; I suspected the former Illinois senator was too close to Chicago shipping interests.

What’s happening now is far worse. When I was a small child, the Lakes were nearly a pristine ecosystem, and the only invasive species I ever heard about were the sea lampreys that had gotten into the lakes through a series of canals. But then, in 1959, the St. Lawrence Seaway opened. This was absolutely great for trade, and a slow-moving disaster for the lakes.

Ocean-going ships carry ballast water for stability, and they began to discharge it into the lakes, together with the life forms in there. So, in short order, our lakes were polluted by hundreds of invasive species, including the zebra mussels that clog pipes, the worthless little round gobies that eat native fishes’ eggs and fry, and diseases that kill fish.

Twelve years ago, the Michigan legislature almost unanimously passed legislation setting tough standards for ballast water, requiring it be cleaned and discharged before these ships entered the Lakes. That’s greatly helped prevent new invasive species. But now greedy business interests and the legislators they control want to weaken those standards to save money.

Both houses have passed legislation that would require ships entering Michigan’s portions of the Great Lakes to only observe the much weaker federal environmental standards, which have been shown to be inadequate in combating invasive species.

Governor Snyder needs to do the right thing and veto these bills, which are also opposed by his own MDEQ, the state Department of Environmental Quality. The alternative seriously risks damaging our future beyond repair.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.