What was the Great Lakes Congressional Delegation Thinking?

Those are some tough words, but they reflect what a lot of people are thinking after Great Lakes shippers sailed through a loophole that allows them to avoid complying with new air pollution standards. Navigating the way for them was our very own Congressional Delegation who evidently held meetings with the EPA and refused to talk publicily about the summits. We, the constituents, were able to get glimpses of the debate from a staffer who- in the press – alluded to cost-benefit analysis that would prove the shippers cause, but when we asked to see such studies they could not be unearthed (in fact, the EPA didn’t know to what the staffer was referring!). While our Great Lakes members of congress have a track record of being champions for our efforts and we recognize Washington requires compromises to be made, we hope they have not set a dangerous precedent for future restoration efforts by letting poison spewing dinosaurs off the hook. Bowing to the wishes of the shipping industry on air pollution control could reveal a harbinger just as tough negotiations for ballast water treatment are on the horizon.

“The Lakers are facing many hurdles in the upcoming years from air emissions to ballast regulations, and lower water levels associated with climate change. If they want to thrive in the future they need to not resist change but embrace it. If they don’t upgrade and they evade the air pollution standards will they call for exemptions from the ballast regulations?” asked Jen Nalbone, of Great Lakes United. Did our delegation unwittingly create a loophole so big that a school of Asian Carp could pummel through it?

Yes, I do realize that shipping isn’t what brought the carp to the doors of our Great Lakes, but if this is the start of a string of exemptions for ye old Lakers, the impact could easily be analogous to a 50-lb-of-leaping-fish-flesh-smack-upside-the-head. So, carp aside, for now anyway, 26 ships that sail the Great Lakes will not have to comply with the EPA standards and will be allowed to continue to hazardously pollute the air we breathe as well as the lakes. For the sake of profit and at a detriment to public health, 13 ships will get waivers from the EPA if they can prove they will go out of business by complying. Another 13 (the real dinos) got out of compliance all together – Rep. David Obey (D-Wisc.) suggested these ships boilers would “blow up” if they burned the cleaner fuel the EPA is requiring.

“Nobody was asking the ships to burn refined low sulfur fuel in steamship engines, that would be like trying to put batteries in a slide rule,” Nalbone retorts.

Some of our Great Lakes Lawmakers argued that without this amendment the Great Lakes region would be at an economic disadvantage.It is truly disappointing that certain Great Lakes lawmakers still haven’t embraced the widely accepted premise that cleaning up the Great Lakes is good for the economy – ala Brookings Report circa 2007. Case in point, the Great Lakes Interlake Steamship Company already replaced the engines on two of their steamships with more fuel efficient ones repowered their vessels in ways that exceed the EPA’s proposed regulations. And guess what, they didn’t go out of business instead they now have cleaner ships that perform more efficiently and will stay in business for years to come.

“Mr. Obey didn’t do the industry any favors in the long run. He could have really helped this ancient fleet modernize, instead of letting them languish in the mid-20th century. He could have chosen to pursue a modified timeline for implementation and financial assistance to those ships that will need to make the transition to newer, more fuel efficient engines. Now those aged ships are no less dirty, and no more competitive and tomorrow we will still be breathing polluted air,” Nalbone said.

Attaching this rider to the Interior spending bill wasn’t just unpopular with many in the environmental and Great Lakes community, it wasn’t popular with our delegation’s colleagues either.

Clearly, this deal left a bad taste in the mouth of California Senator Dianne Feinstein (D) who chairs the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee who said, “It’s not something I necessarily desire.” While shepherding the $32.1 billion Interior Bill in the US Senate on Thursday, that was approved by a vote of 77-21, she paused to once again express her distaste for the loophole saying “this was language included at the insistence of the House. Frankly, it was not my preference to include this language.”

Previously, when the deal was first brokered, House Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) a lead author of the bill said that giving this pass to the Great Lakes ships will raise the issue for other ships as well – large ships that produce high levels of sulfur pollution. “The language could disallow us to effectively deal with those problems, not just around the Great Lakes, but around our country and dealing with foreign-flagged ships as well.” Concerns were also raised about the deal undermining the coordinate bi-national strategy to protect human health – in the US-Canada emissions control area.

In an attempt to address these problems, Sen. Feinstein told her colleagues, Thursday, that they crafted the compromise so that no other state or US seaboard community’s air quality would be negatively impacted. Great for them, but not so much for us, but then, public health has always tended to take a back seat to industry in our region.

When this deal was outted, Rep. Obey declared that he takes “a back seat to no one” when it comes to protecting the Great Lakes and all other environmental areas. That was true, until this past week. Let’s hope he and the rest of our delegation can recover their restoration compass and gravitas among their colleagues so that this little loophole doesn’t grow into a terribly large tare. Future progress for restoration and clean air and water could be at stake.

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One Response to What was the Great Lakes Congressional Delegation Thinking?

  1. Don Mitchel says:

    Dear Sirs, As the Coast Guard works on new ballast laws, and new shipping lanes open in the Arctic allowed because of melting ice, dose anyone think the following web site depicting virus (H1N1) as waterborne is legitimate and might be significant? http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1676296/
    Don Mitchel