For thousands of years, the Great Lakes were pristine repositories of clean, fresh water isolated from the great oceans and much of the rest of the world.
Over time, they became home to thousands of distinctive native plants and animals, as well as up to 20 percent of the world's supply of fresh surface water.
Then, that dramatically changed. To great acclaim, the St. Lawrence Seaway opened in 1959, connecting the Great Lakes with the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, opening the center of America to giant ocean-going ships carrying loads of grain and iron ore around the world. The benefits to business and to people living in the Great Lakes region were enormous.
But every benefit comes with a price. And the costs here only became evident when people started noticing invaders raising havoc with previously isolated native plants and animals.
Invading Sea Lampreys decimated the native Lake Trout stock, while Zebra Mussels started clogging up entry pipes for power plants. Round Gobies, a fish native to the Black and Caspian Seas, started voraciously eating the food supply of native fishes, as well as their eggs and hatchlings.
This began to play havoc with the ecology, and it didn't take long for scientists to figure out the source of the invasion: Ballast water loaded into boats in foreign ports and discharged into the Great Lakes, together with lots of critters entirely new to our previously isolated Great Lakes fresh water system.
These new invaders had few or no natural enemies, which enabled them to rapidly multiply and often crowd out native species.
It isn’t clear how many invasive species have been introduced into the Great Lakes via discharged ballast water. Clearly, the number is more than 50, maybe as many as 200.
What is clear is that these invaders cost as much as $200 million a year to the regional economy of the Great Lakes region, according to the Center for Aquatic Conservation at Notre Dame University. If you doubt the lakes’ importance, think sport and commercial fishing and recreational boating.
Not to mention our fresh water supply.
Finally, in June 2005, the state of Michigan passed a law and a set of regulations requiring salt-water-going vessels to use various technologies to kill invasive species while in ships' ballast. As well as prohibiting them from dumping ballast water in the Great Lakes. The law allowed ships to pick up and unload freight in Great Lakes ports and required the state to issue a permit requiring use of state-approved cleansing technology.
The law received bipartisan support, passed overwhelmingly and was given immediate effect. Almost immediately, the rate of contamination from foreign critics fell sharply. The law was widely regarded as crucial by anyone concerned with preserving and protecting the Great Lakes.
That is, until Nov. 8, when the Republican-controlled state Senate passed on a 25-11 near-party line vote a law that would inexcusably weaken the 2005 measure controlling untreated ballast dumping in the Great Lakes.
Instead, the Senate would only require the state to obey federal regulations, which are widely regarded as providing much less protection against invasive species.
Clearly, the environment was not on the minds of the politicians behind this. The original bill, HB 5095, was introduced on October 12. Even though it amends the basic Michigan Environmental Protection Act, it was referred by the leadership to the Commerce Committee, not the Natural Resources Committee. Within less than a month the bill had zipped through to approval by both the House and the Senate.
Chief sponsor of the bill was State Rep. Dan Lauwers (R-Brockway), the majority floor leader, who owns a grain company south of Port Huron. Now in the last term he can legally serve, he attacked the previous law as "over-regulation" and called for loosening regulations for shipping interests to make Michigan ports "more competitive."
There seems to be more going on here than just Michigan concerns.
Last week, a U.S. Senate committee approved a measure that would set a national standard for ballast-water discharges, and prevent states from setting stricter standards. This was probably no coincidence.
Indeed, the Lake Carriers Association, which represents Great Lakes shipping interests, advocated for the change, claiming that "Thousands of commercial vessels will spend billions of dollars installing ballast-water management systems to meet the federal standard but will still be at risk from fines and penalties for violating several different state standards."
Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality is on record as opposing the bill, and environmentalists are urging Gov. Snyder to consider a veto.
Consider this: Our legislature seems to have persistent trouble getting big stuff done like auto insurance rates, not to mention fixing the roads. The fact that this move to endanger our lakes has moved through so fast is a pretty clear sign the fix is in. Lansing sources tell me that the bill is consistent with a letter from Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof to Gov. Rick Snyder attacking the MDEQ as "out of control."
Many of us think that, on the contrary, MDEQ was not vigilant enough about the environment when it came to Flint.
But in any event, exactly why the legislature thinks putting the MDEQ in its place would best be done by putting our most precious resource, the water quality of the Great Lakes, in increased danger is not clear to me.
We should all hope the governor decides to veto this piece of highly risky special interest legislation.