Michigan GOP to invasive species: Welcome to the Great Lakes

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.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Tue, 11/14/2017 - 7:51am

In this area, not sure of the the point of having IL, WI and MI each having their own separate regs and procedures. Unless someone thinks invasives will respect state lines? Seems a rare and legitimate case where federal law is the only way to pursue your objective and state regs kind of silly.

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 9:30am

Or- rather than rely on federal standards, the Great Lakes states work together to form a coalition and set a uniform set of regulations for the Great Lakes. We have to protect these waters, and if federal standards aren't enough, the states need to work together.

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 10:08am

Cooperation and evirionmental improvements require liberal government

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 12:04pm

Better yet! And get Canada in it.

Le Roy G. Barnett
Tue, 11/14/2017 - 8:39am

While it is true that the Republicans are behind this cockamamie bill to diminish safeguards to the Great Lakes, the ultimate blame lies with the residents of Michigan who--year after year--insist upon putting that political party in charge of all aspects of our state government.

Thu, 04/26/2018 - 10:44pm

Yes why won’t they let me speak my mind I have apt to offer for the septic code but I was told only about 6 people were in charge I want my voice to be heard I can help but unfortunalty they don’t want to listen to reason and reasonable opions please help me get on the committee I can make things happen

Steve Williams
Tue, 11/14/2017 - 8:54am

I read the act and can't understand the criticism. Point me to the problem with the act. Matt's comment seems right on with what I read. LeRoy seems to have a problem with Republicans more than the bill.

Robert Dunn
Tue, 11/14/2017 - 11:56am

Waiting for the all the states, Ontario, Can, and Federal Government to be involved to do something regarding protecting the Great Lakes from destruction, will take forever. Michigan led the way for protecting the lakes. Now some people want us to back off. I believe it is the government job to protect the people and resources of the state. To do otherwise is irresponsible.

Tue, 04/24/2018 - 8:29pm

I agree with Robert Dunn! It's the government job to take care of these situations!! What do they get paid for just like Rick Snyder poisoning all the Flint people and know it while it's happening! People like us can't afford to do something about it or we would this is all uncalled for in 2018! Suppose to be better I don't think so!!

David Clemo
Tue, 11/14/2017 - 2:21pm

Love to see Bridge due a cost/benefit article on the St. Lawrence Seaway. My guess is, that if you factor in all the environmental damage, it should have never been opened.

Rep. Dan Lauwers goal appears to be saving a couple of bucks on shipping grain....the environment be damned!

Lunacy is apparently not confined to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 3:28pm

How is the federal act weaker? The language between the two is completely different, but it looks like the federal rule has a definitive discharge standard while the MI rule did not.

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 3:48pm

These MI regs are a red herring. They only require use of a ballast water system. No standard is set. Not one ship has applied for permit to discharge BW in Michigan...also it only makes some sense if ALL of the GL states did the same but none have. All BW is exchanged by ships coming into the Lakes. This works. No new invasive species in 10 years. This bill was supposed to get CG to issue their rules and they did. It served its purpose and should go.

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 5:13pm

Phil - I hate to break this to you but one of your featured sponsors, Amway, helped big time to create the GOP domination of our state and this kind of stupidity. Stop accepting money from people who are professional liars and swindlers.

Mon, 11/20/2017 - 8:15pm

Still continuing your ravings about Devos' and Van Andels, that must be pulled into every sentence no matter how off topic? Are you still looking under your bed at night too? Must be tough trying to convince everyone how wonderful GR would've been if they never existed. Keep at it, don't give up!

Diana Sandall
Wed, 11/15/2017 - 11:43am

This is terrible! We can expect this from a government that does not seem concerned about the issues of environment. This lack of concern
Exists from the top ( Trump) down to Snyder. We need a change to a more liberal government that cares about the people of Michigan, the people of the Country and our EARTH and WATER purity! Call, Vote and March! We need change!

Thu, 11/16/2017 - 12:52pm

The previous Michigan law was the weaker environmental standard. The new rule is only terrible if you actually want to damage the environment. I'm sure you don't want to damage the ecosystem but that is what the old rule was set up to do.

Mark W.
Sat, 11/18/2017 - 5:20pm

1st, until you post exactly what the federal regulations are you cannot claim thst anybody is loosening standards. 2nd having every state have its own standsrd is ridiculous. If the federal guidelines cover the same ground then it doesn't make sense to keep changing the rules. The author of this article obviously has an agenda that does not involve full disclosure of all the facts for people to make an informed decision.