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Biel: Closing Chicago locks would be ‘disaster’ for Illinois economy

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

The spread of Asian carp to Lake Michigan has the potential to become a major environmental problem, concedes Mark Biel, executive director of the Chemical Industry Council of Illinois and head of a group called “Unlock Our Jobs.” But the call to close the shipping locks in the waterways near Chicago is “a knee-jerk reaction and political grandstanding,” Biel says.

Moreover, he adds, it has the potential to cause billions of dollars in damage to the Windy City’s economy without stopping the large and voracious fish from entering the lake.

Biel’s strong words came in response to a suit filed Monday in the U.S. District Court in northern Illinois by the attorneys general in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania. He noted that similar suits have twice been rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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The Badger State’s J.B. Van Hollen said he joined the suit to “to protect the Great Lakes and to protect the Wisconsin jobs that depend on the health of the Great Lakes. The introduction of Asian Carp into Lake Michigan will irreversibly damage this important resource. The time for action is now.”

Biel was especially critical of Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, whom he said is using the issue to boost his run for governor by bashing Illinois.

“Cox made this a big political issue in Michigan,” Biel said. “He’s filed three suits to have the locks closed, but the Supreme Court has refused to hear those suits and dismissed them. Now a lot of elected officials who normally would be thoughtful and look at both sides have been backed into a corner and taken the position that the locks need to be closed.”

Cox, for his part, has said that Asian carp “will kill jobs and ruin our way of life. We cannot afford more bureaucratic delays -- every action must be taken to protect the Great Lakes."

Biel said the Army Corps has declared that lock closure will not lower chances of Asian carp entering Lake Michigan.

But he said the move would “absolutely devastate waterway commerce and does nothing to help the situation. Furthermore, the demands for additional barriers are completely gratuitous – plans for an additional electric barrier are already in motion. Why is it necessary to sue unless these politicians are focused primarily on getting their names in headlines?"

He says the goal should be a "comprehensive, effective, long-term solution," adding, "Superfluous lawsuits, name calling and political grandstanding have no place here – regional leaders must come together in support of solutions driven by facts and science.”

The carp have infested portions of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers and have been found in waterways near Chicago, where two electronic barriers were installed to block invasive species and a third is under construction. The fear is some carp have gotten past the barriers and may soon invade Lake Michigan, and others will follow.

The Army Corps has refused to close shipping locks and gates on the waterways, saying there's no guarantee that doing so would keep the carp out of the lake. Industries that rely on shipping say closing the locks would injure the regional economy.

The suit accuses the Corps and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago of creating a public nuisance by operating locks, gates and other infrastructure through which the carp could enter the lakes.

Bighead and silver carp, both Asian varieties, were imported to Deep South fish farms and sewage lagoons in the early 1970s. They escaped into the Mississippi and have been migrating north since.

Prolific and aggressive, carp gobble plankton that form a crucial link in the aquatic food chain. Scientists say if they gain a foothold in the Great Lakes, they could starve out smaller fish that are prey for sport and commercial species such as salmon, walleye and whitefish. Silver carp also pose a safety hazard with their habit of hurtling from the water at the sound of passing motors. They have collided with boaters.

The Obama administration outlined a $78.5 million anti-carp strategy in February that focused on technological solutions such as strengthening the electric barrier and applying fish poisons where Asian Carp DNA was found.

Biel said he believes that Illinois is getting a fair shake from President Obama, who spent more than 20 years in Chicago, teaching law at the University of Chicago and ultimately serving as a U.S. senator from Illinois.

In their lawsuit, the states say the Obama administration measures aren't enough. Along with closing the locks, they call for more aggressive poisoning, placing nets and other barriers at crucial points and physically separating the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds.

Biel said his group is taking the Asian carp problem seriously and does not want the fish in the Great Lakes.

But he said his business group became especially concerned about the issue in October when barge traffic was held up on the Illinois and Des Plaines rivers when an electronic barrier was shut down.

“Our primary focus is keeping the locks open, but we want to work in conjunction with our elected officials to make sure the Asian carp don’t get into Lake Michigan,” he said.

“There are a number of steps being taken by government and the private sector to keep that from happening. There are now two electrical barriers near Lockport and a third is being constructed and should be operational by October. And another light and sound barriers is being considered to move the carp into a shallow pond where they could be harvested for smoking and shipping to China or turning them into fertilizer and other beneficial products.”

He said his group doesn’t believe any fish have gotten through the electrical barriers now in place, though one was found about six miles from Lake Michigan in Lake Calumet.

He said four others have been found in land-locked ponds.

“It is not uncommon, particularly in the Asian community in Chicago, to buy two fish and release one on special occasions,” he said. “Probably more likely, they got there as releases from bait buckets. Bait shops, we think, about six or seven years ago before there was outreach, were unaware they were selling Asian carp minnows. Ultimately, folks dumped those in ponds.”

Biel stressed that no Asian carp have been found yet in Lake Michigan.

“There were some found from 1995 to 2003 in Lake Erie,” he said. “One of the things that is being studied is would they survive or thrive. A lot more study needs to be done and we hope we never get to that point.”

He said it would be “disastrous if the knee-jerk reaction to shut the locks” is successful. He linked the growth of Chicago’s industrial might to the development of the lock system and its inexpensive barge transportation system. He predicted that many companies would move if the locks would close.

“The ability to move heavy commodities at low cost is what really gave Chicago its advantage,” he said. “The industrial might of the city is still in that area.”

Biel also cited an initial study that said closing the locks would have an economic impact of $4.7 billion. But he said he believes that figure is low and his group has commissioned another report.

“We think that is just a sliver because an estimated $16 billion in commodities moves back and forth annually between Lake Michigan and Mississippi, ranging from grain to steel to chemicals, and some of that is value-added products,” he said.

He said he also worries about setting a precedent by creating a permanent barrier between the Lake Michigan and the Mississippi Basin.

“In Chicago, you’d now have to figure out how to deal with wastewater and storm water runoff,” he said. “They want to make sure commerce can move seamlessly, which I argue will cost a small fortune.

“But the precedent-setting nature is that if you can shut off the connection between Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River basin over an invasive species, then what is to say you can’t shut off the St. Lawrence Seaway or other locks around the Great Lakes and essentially return the Great Lakes to the way they were before man was here?

“I would argue that that is the goal of a number of environmental groups, to go that far and shut off all access points to the Great Lakes and that would be very detrimental to Illinois, Wisconsin and all the other states that border the Great Lakes.”

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