Archive for June, 2010

Bad News, Doubled, on Asian Carp

June 24, 2010

I don’t know which is worse: the discovery of a live Asian carp beyond the electric fence that is supposed to stop them, or the dismissive and obstructionist reaction to that discovery from the Army Corps of Engineers. That’s the negative impression I got after listening to an emergency briefing held yesterday afternoon by the agencies responsible for protecting the Great Lakes from the monster carp: the Corps, the Coast Guard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. EPA, and the Illinois DNR.

Of course it’s bad news that a 20-pound, 34-inch bighead carp was captured in Lake Calumet, 6 miles from Lake Michigan and beyond the electric fence and the O’Brien Lock. There is no remaining physical barrier between where the fish was found and the Great Lakes. And because the fish was found in larger body of water (Lake Calumet) so close to Lake Michigan, chemical treatment may be unwise or impossible. That leaves increased electrofishing and netting to try to find more invasive carp and suppress whatever populations are present.

The good news is that most of the agencies on the call said that they plan to implement the electrofishing and netting measures and expressed a new urgency in making sure they were doing all in their power to stop the Asian carp from advancing. The US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US EPA, the Illinois DNR…. they all announced new measures to combat the carp, and each of them pledged to ramp up their efforts.  But not the Corps.

The Corps spokesperson, Mike White, made it sound as if the Corps would just like to wash its hands of the whole problem. On the call and in the press release, he said the Corps’ primary responsibility was:

“to continue to operate the locks and dams in the Chicago Area Waterway System for Congressionally authorized purposes of navigation, water diversion, and flood control. We will continue to support fish suppression activities by modifying existing structures such as locks as requested by other agencies to support this common goal…”

Protect the Great Lakes? Forget about it. Apparently the Corps does not think that protecting the Great Lakes is part of its mission.

When asked if the Corps would post on its website the results, including the date and location, of the additional DNA sampling we assumed the Corps would be conducting, Mr. White said the Corps is in discussions with the institutions who have done sampling in the past (Notre Dame) about whether Corps will continue doing DNA sampling at all. So, will the DNA sampling resume? The Corps doesn’t know, but it certainly hopes those discussions come to resolution sometime soon. Well, that’s a relief, right?

Later, in a call with the press, Mr. White was asked if the discovery of a live carp beyond the electric fence, 6 miles from Lake Michigan, made a response to the problem more urgent. His response was that the Corps would consider its statutory authorities and determine a course of action. In other words, the Corps is going to think about it and get back to us.

Will the Corps act forcefully and with urgency? Forget about it – not to protect the Great Lakes.

What’s terrifying is that the Corps is the agency that is supposed to decide on whether a permanent separation of the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River is feasible. Given the performance we saw yesterday, why bother? Their answer is predetermined (since Great Lakes protection apparently isn’t part of the Corps’s mission), and given the low urgency that agency is assigning to this issue, it could be decades before it finishes the study, anyway.

We’re supporting a bill to force the Corps to do a real feasibility study on hydrological separation, and to do it rapidly. Thanks to the leadership of the Great Lakes senators, particularly Senators Durbin, Stabenow, Levin and Voinovich, this bill might move, and move quickly. It will be a big help with the Corps’ mission.

But what about the Corps’ culture? I think we need to change the agency’s incentives. How about this: if Asian carp colonize the Great Lakes, then the costs to the ecosystem and the economies that depend on it get deducted from the Corps’ annual budget. Or even better: deduct those costs from the paychecks of their staff.

That might light the fire under them the Great Lakes need.

New York shuts the door on ballast water discharges of invasive species into the Great Lakes

June 22, 2010

This is the best news in decades on invasive species in the Great Lakes, and chances are, you haven’t heard it yet. Thanks to a New York rule upheld in court last week, starting in 18 months no ship can enter the Great Lakes unless it has the technology to disinfect its ballast water to stop the discharge of invasive species. And that’s not just in New York; it’s anywhere in the Great Lakes.

What happened last week is pretty technical, and that’s why it’s been quiet: New York’s Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) refused to overturn the state’s conditions for certification of EPA’s national ballast water discharge permit. That means New York’s rules for implementing the national ballast water discharge permit are final – no more appeals. (Check out Thom Cmar’s blog post for further details).

What does that mean?

Well, New York’s rules say that beginning January 1, 2012, no ocean-going ship can travel through New York waters without having a ballast water treatment technology that meets some of the toughest standards in the world – approaching zero discharge of invasive species.  To repeat: any ocean-going ship that PASSES THROUGH NEW YORK’S WATERS must have a treatment system that meets these protective standards.

And how many ocean-going ships entering the Great Lakes pass through New York’s waters? EVERY SINGLE ONE. Any ocean-going ship entering the Great Lakes must travel through the St. Lawrence River, through a series of locks including the Snell and Eisenhower Locks in New York. Ships can’t get through the river into the Great Lakes without transiting those locks, and the two other entrances to the Great Lakes (the Erie Canal and the Chicago canals) aren’t big enough to handle ocean-going vessels. So ocean-going ships can’t get into the Great Lakes without traveling through New York’s waters.

And because every ocean-going ship entering the Great Lakes has to travel through New York’s waters, every one of those ships will have to install technology that can meet these incredibly protective ballast water discharge standards by January 1, 2012.

That’s huge.

Ballast water discharges from ocean-going ships are the largest source of invasive species in the Great Lakes. They’ve brought us creatures like zebra mussels, quagga mussels, round gobies, and spiny water fleas. And once these invaders establish residence in the lakes, they’re here to stay. They have few natural predators, so they outcompete native species, reproduce like crazy, and damage the Great Lakes ecosystem.

The Coast Guard and EPA have both taken half-measures to address these ballast water discharges, but none have been very effective. Congress has considered new legislation, but it stalled last session and in any event would not be implemented nearly as rapidly as New York’s rule.  States like New York have begun to step up, but common wisdom was that no single state could stop harmful ballast water discharges throughout the Great Lakes because ships could simply avoid that state and instead discharge their ballast water in a state with weaker protections or in Canadian waters.

But New York took advantage of geography. Knowing that every ship entering the Great Lakes has to travel through New York’s waters, New York set requirements for ships that are just passing through, even if they don’t actually discharge in New York. That means the New York standards apply to all ships entering the Great Lakes. The weaker protection efforts by the Coast Guard and EPA and the slower standards proposed in Congress have been left far behind.

Now the New York rules must be implemented and enforced, which is no small challenge. But New York deserves our applause and gratitude. In a mere 18 months – many years faster than the Coast Guard or Congress has even contemplated – no ocean-going ship will be able to discharge invasive species-contaminated ballast water into the Great Lakes. That truly will be something to celebrate.

Back to the drawing board for Waukesha

June 11, 2010

By guest blogger, Marc Smith, NWF Great Lakes Policy Manager

The highly watched Lake Michigan diversion crusade from the city of Waukesha hit a pretty big snag this week as the WI DNR returned the application back to the city because it was deemed “incomplete.”

The WI DNR in a letter to Waukesha Mayor Jeff Scrima on June 8th, outlined the following issues that deemed the application incomplete:

  1. Failure to show no other reasonable water supply alternative. The application strictly says that Great Lakes water is the only option. However, the city is currently continuing to examine other alternatives to a Great Lakes diversion.  The Great Lakes Compact is clear that any application for a diversion demonstrates that there is no reasonable water supply alternative;
  2. Failure to analyze impacts of proposed return flow options. This is big.  How can the WI DNR accurately review these options without both the point of withdrawal and the corresponding return flow location?
  3. Failure to include a cost analysis. How much will this cost?  Seems a fair question, don’t you think?  Not only that, but the Great Lakes Compact is clear that you must include this information;
  4. Failure to pay the minimal $5,000 application fee. This is kind of embarrassing.  How could you forget to pay this small amount when the city of Waukesha is reported to have spent between $1-$2 million in consulting fees alone on this application?

Kudos to the WI DNR for how they have handled this application.  Even though we may have concerns that this application was being processed without rules in place to implement the Great Lakes Compact, they should be commended for taking this application very seriously by going forward on an Environmental Impact Statement and now…ruling it incomplete.

So, now the status of this application is really uncertain.  As the new Mayor continues to explore other alternatives to a future water supply for Waukesha, who will do the above requests from the WI DNR when the water utility says that Lake Michigan is the only option?  Seems there is a very tense political problem in Waukesha to say the least.

Coming soon: Michigan’s version of the BP disaster

June 4, 2010

A company with a history of polluting that wants to take valuable resources from deep underground.

An industrial  extraction operation with high risks to hundreds of miles of coastline, spectacular waters, a vibrant fishery…. and human life.

An agency that promotes the industry rather than regulating it.

No contingency plan if (when) the operation goes wrong.

Sound familiar?

I’m not just talking about the BP oil spill. The same scenario is playing out right here in Michigan. Kennecott Eagle Minerals Corp. is about to start digging for nickel and other minerals underneath the headwaters of the U.P’s Salmon Trout River, which runs through the largest stand of old growth forest east of the Mississippi and into Lake Superior. Kennecott plans to blast through a sacred Native American site, Eagle Rock, into sulfide ore bodies that produce acid mine drainage when they come into contact with air and water….. which inevitably they will do. This operation not only is likely to scar this magnificent landscape for hundreds of years. It also has a significant risk –according to the state’s own experts – of a mine collapse, endangering human life and draining the river.

What’s Kennecott’s plan if any of these disasters come to pass? It doesn’t have one.

This mine was vetted and recommended for approval by the Michigan Office of Geological Survey, part of the DNRE and the state equivalent of the now-infamous U.S. Minerals Management Service.

Why?

Well, the head of the Survey’s mining team called the mining project “my baby” and identified Kennecott as his “customer.”

During the application process, he admitted that he concealed an expert memorandum that reported on the risk of mine collapse, after which he was suspended …. and then reinstated as head of the mining team after an internal state investigation said he was motivated by ignorance, not malfeasance. (Well, that’s a relief, right?) Another member of the state’s mining team formed a business partnership with Kennecott employees to offer mining services to the private sector (the partnership was dissolved after it became public).  Finally, the Governor’s UP representative who helped her formulate her position on the mine has also left government service to work for….. you guessed it:  Kennecott. The mining team recommended approval to the Michigan DEQ before it merged with the DNR to form the DNRE. And just days before that merger – perhaps to avoid tarring the new DNRE with this terrible decision – a mid-level DEQ staff member gave final approval to the operation of the mine.

And we thought MMS was corrupt.

NWF and its partner organizations (Yellow Dog Preserve, Keewenaw Bay Indian Community, and Huron Mountain Club) have filed multiple lawsuits to stop the mine.  So far, we’ve only slowed it down, but the major litigation is just beginning.

Meanwhile, members of the tribe and local residents are taking matters into their own hands, camping on Eagle Rock to stop Kennecott from destroying it. Several have been arrested, but they keep at it. And yesterday, over 100 people rallied against the mine on the steps of the state capitol building. Read the latest on these activists at www.StandfortheLand.com. Or check out Save the Wild UP’s website, www.SavetheWildUP.org.

I’ll be writing about this travesty more often, now that the state has approved it and the action on the ground is heating up. To read a more detailed history, check out NWF’s sulfide mining web page.

Or even better, watch the movie! NWF has co-produced an award-winning documentary on the mine called Mining Madness, Water Wars: Great Lakes in the Balance.

This mine is a massive disaster waiting to happen, and the state’s complicity is an outrage. Call your elected state officials and the Governor to let them know.