Durbin Says Illinois 'Not in Denial' on Carp Threat

Daily Herald
January 12, 2010

Senator Dick Durbin urged better cooperation among Great Lakes states to keep Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan, something he said would create "economic and ecosystem devastation."

Durbin and other Illinois elected officials assembled for a briefing in Chicago from local, state and federal agency representatives on how to prevent havoc the fish might bring to the shipping and fishing industries.

The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled Friday to consider a lawsuit filed last month by Michigan seeking to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Illinois and the Chicago region's sewer district to close locks and dams along Chicago-area waterways to keep the carp out of the lakes. New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota joined the suit.

"We don't yet know which actions should be taken to ensure that these carp don't reach Lake Michigan," said Durbin, the U.S. Senate's No. 2 Democrat. "We are not in denial of this problem."

The gathering at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago was on Lake Michigan's banks and about a mile from a Chicago canal that helps link the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes.

How to deal with the carp, which by some estimates have made their way from the river to within 6 miles (10 kilometers) of Lake Michigan, has divided Great Lakes states.

If Asian carp reach Lake Michigan and thrive, it could hurt the region's $7 billion sport-fishing industry and bond ratings for the communities that rely on tourism.

Fish Politics

"I want to take the fish out of the courtroom and out of the campaign headquarters and into an honest discussion," Durbin said.

The senior senator from Illinois stressed how his state has worked on the problem for the better part of a decade, as he spoke from a room displaying Great Lakes species.

"There may be one looking over my shoulder right now," Durbin said, noting how the fish can act "like a vacuum cleaner sucking up all of the plankton" and denying food to other creatures.

Closing locks and dams would create "devastation" to the nation's commerce, said Representative Judy Biggert, an Illinois Republican.

"Some of the companies that we have would go out of business, if it was shut down," she said. "This is not only an environmental issue. It is also an economic issue."

Separation Anxiety

Opponents of creating a barrier between the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal and Lake Michigan say such a move would imperil shipping jobs, air quality and the waterway's century- old role of keeping sewage out of Chicago's drinking water.

The administration of President Barack Obama has sided with his adopted home state of Illinois to urge the court not to order the closing of Chicago-area locks and waterways.

The administration said Jan. 5 that the "dramatic steps" sought by Michigan and the other states weren't warranted to prevent the fish from migrating into Lake Michigan. Biggert called on other states to back away from their legal challenges.

"I hope that all of these states will join us instead of suing us," she said.

Illinois officials have underestimated the "pure outrage" other states feel over the issue, John Sellek, a spokesman for Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox, said after the briefing. He also criticized Obama for not closing the locks.

Criticizing Obama

"He could do that, but he is siding with the narrow interests of Illinois instead of the rest of the Great Lakes states," Sellek said. Cox, a Republican, is running for governor of Michigan.

Richard Lanyon, executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, said closing the locks would result in "devastating flooding throughout the region" and allow the fish to flow "unrestricted" into the lake.

The Obama administration on Dec. 14 granted $13 million to fight the carp migration. Most of the money is earmarked for blocking other possible routes into Lake Michigan.

Almost 17 million tons of material moves on the canal each year, including coal from southern Illinois to Edison International power plants in Chicago, iron ore from the Gulf of Mexico to steel plants in Chicago and northwest Indiana, and road salt from Louisiana mines to Chicago and Milwaukee.

The carp grow as big as 4 feet (1.2 meters) and 100 pounds (45 kilograms), and consume "vast amounts of food," according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The carp were imported from Asia to the Mississippi delta region to cleanse fish ponds and sewage lagoons. Flooding transported them into the Mississippi River, and they have been moving north since the 1970s, according to the EPA.