Destroying the Great Lakes

How would you like to invite a bunch of strangers from other countries to come over and go to the bathroom in your bathtub? Sound sick and disgusting?

Sure does, and that's what the governments of the United States and Canada are doing every day with the Great Lakes, the largest source of fresh water in the world. Well, make that increasingly polluted water.

Polluted mostly not by sewage — though America does pump the equivalent of 3,650 Olympic swimming pools full of raw sewage into the Great Lakes every year. We can fix that. The real problem is invasive species, creepy crawly things from foreign lands that arrive in the ballast water carried by ships.

The big cargo ships and freighters get across the ocean, come through the St. Lawrence Seaway into our lakes — and then dump their ballast water, together with all the crap in it, into them. And some of that crap is alive.

Twenty years ago, the first major pest, the famous zebra mussels, arrived this way. They clog up drains and vents, and damage docks and boats and power and water plants. They can store incredibly high concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals in their little bodies, making them potentially even more dangerous.

Within a few years, they were followed by the round goby, an ugly, bug-eyed fish too small to eat. For us to eat, that is. The goby, which comes from Eastern Europe, has no problems eating. What it especially likes to eat is the eggs and fry of the wonderful fish native to the Great Lakes — perch and pickerel among them. Last summer I stood on a fishing dock in Charlevoix and watched cursing anglers catch goby after goby, often stomping on them.

Alas, the aliens had pretty much wiped out the native species. Now we have something even worse — viral hemorrhagic septicemia, or VHS. This is a charming disease that causes fish to bleed to death internally.

Last year there was a huge die-off of yellow perch in Lake Erie, many of whose bodies showed clear signs of bleeding from the eyeballs. The virus, first reported in Lake Ontario, has now spread as far as Lake St. Clair. So far it hasn't reached the upper Great Lakes, Huron, Michigan and Superior.

Environmentalists want to stop its spread, but few think they have any chance of doing much more than briefly slowing it.

Doesn't that just make you excited to see what the next repulsive ecology-destroying creature may be? Well, we can sit around and wait ... or we could take the truly revolutionary step of trying to stop species pollution.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller (R-Harrison Township) hasn't exactly been a crusading environmentalist. On most issues, she is quite conservative. But she loves the water and feels strongly about what is our most precious asset.

Accordingly, she is pushing a new bill in Congress that would at least try to do something about this. Her bill (HR 801) would set a new standard that would require such ships to dump their contaminated ballast water at least 50 miles out to sea. She also wants their water compartments to be 10 times cleaner than the minimum standards set by the International Maritime Organization.

Last year, she introduced the same bill. It went nowhere. "I have to tell you, there is a very powerful shipping lobby which opposes anything that costs the industry money," she said.

This year, she is hoping to have more luck getting her bill through. In fact, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin has introduced a ballast water bill of his own. That sounds good ... but her bill wouldn't take effect till 2010, and his not until 2012.

By that time, the Creature from the Black Lagoon could be well established in Lake Superior. I asked her, "Why wait so long?" To give the shipping industry time to prepare for the big change, she said. That didn't impress me.

What I then did was turn to guidance to an environmental writer I know in another state, a man who knows much more about the ecology of the Great Lakes than I do. For competitive reasons, he did not want me to use his name here.

But he did know all about the new proposals, and he wasn't moved. "Miller's legislation is meaningless bureaucratic crap, unless the United States and Canada ever get serious about cracking down on ballast water regulations. The enforcement to date has been a joke." Ships are supposed to dump and exchange their ballast water out at sea now, he told me. But many don't.

"As far as I know, there has never been a ship sent back to sea for failing to exchange its ballast water out there. A few fines, but essentially slaps on the wrist."

Ironically, this is one area where Michigan Republicans have, if anything, been better than the Democrats. Even if you dump the ballast water as Miller's bill requires, certain viruses and other diseases might still be in the sludge at the bottom. Former State Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema wanted to take tough action. He wanted to require the ships to flush out their tanks with chlorine.

That would kill the creepy crawlies, all right. But it might be highly toxic to other life forms too, and the International Joint Commission, which regulates the Great Lakes, has been dead set against putting chlorine in the water. (Would it really be as bad as all those Olympic swimming pools worth of poo?)

The Joint Commish has instead boldly called for ... more study of the problem, which is what you do when you want to avoid making any decision.

So what we will have before too many years, my source says, is essentially "ecological homogenization of the planet, thanks to trade." Yes, the entire world will be safe for crabgrass, the ugly little birds we call sparrows (they are really a kind of weaver finch), various nasty viruses, and, of course, minimum wage jobs.

Aren't you glad you live in the Age of Progress?


Michigan budget update: Remember six weeks ago when we were all concerned about the fact that the state of Michigan was on the rocks? Remember how we needed a solution to replace the abolished Single Business Tax and that the governor wanted a small sales tax extension to services to avoid huge education cuts?

Everyone was terribly worried. So what happened?

Nothing! We forgot all about it, most of us. Oh, yes, the problem is still there, worse than ever. But the Republicans couldn't care less about the state's future, as long as the super-rich are taken care of in the short run. They would rather play games and make cheap political points.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who was given an enormous mandate to govern, appears to have no more backbone or political skills than she has ever had. She doesn't like to tell us anything or ask anything of us that might make her less popular, something very odd now that she effectively can't run for anything next time.

So we are headed for some kind of disaster, unless something happens right quick. However, do you know that you now can buy "First Gentleman" Dan Mulhern's new book, Everyday Leadership, in paperback for a discount on Amazon? Can you make this stuff up? Of course, you can't, darlin', and we'll be back with more from behind the scenes at the circus next week.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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