Environment and the economy: Forward or reverse for the region?

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By Gary Wilson

Are we at a choice point when it comes to restoring the Great Lakes and the region?

Here’s what I mean.

Remember the S.S. Badger?

That’s the coal-fired passenger ferry that shuttles people between Wisconsin and Michigan. It emits nearly four tons of toxic coal ash into Lake Michigan with every trip. It has been under an Environmental Protection Agency order since 2008 to fix its pollution problem by 2012. How much progress has it made? None.

Now comes legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that would exempt the antique Badger from those pesky enviro regulations by making it a historical landmark. If successful, the coal ash spewing could go on as long as the old Badger stays afloat.

The S.S. Badger parked in Manitowoc, Wisc. Photo: milesizz (Flickr)

At the same time in greater Chicago there is the barge and chemical industry coalition that operates under the name Unlock Our Jobs. Its goal is to maintain the status quo of the 19th century Chicago Area Waterways System. As the primary vector for Asian Carp, the system is under intense scrutiny with serious moves afoot that could change the way goods are moved between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan.

Toss in more environmental backsliding in Wisconsin, building new coal-fired power plants in Michigan and legislation in the U.S. House to relax ballast water regulations, and a pattern becomes apparent.

There are significant constituencies in this region who refuse to let go of the old technology and ways of commerce.

Looking forward in Detroit

Contrast that with what  happened in Detroit in mid-October during Great Lakes Week.

A thousand government officials, environmentalists and engaged citizens gathered for a conference  focused on moving the region forward.

The emphasis was on cleaning up our messes, finding new ways to deal with old problems and generally taking a forward-looking approach to restoring the Great Lakes, and as a byproduct, the region’s economy.

Yeah, the “mega-conference” consisted of standard conference fare. And it was a pep rally with big names like former vice-president Al Gore giving what was essentially a speech to energize the restoration base.

There are problems with the restoration process especially related to its focus. But as imperfect as it is, good things are happening and progress is being made.

Divergent paths

Why the two points of view?

One  looks back and wants to maintain the status quo. The other  is forward looking trying to effect change.

At almost every turn the folks who cling to coal, weaken environmental protections and retain outdated transportation modes say it’s to protect or create jobs.

That’s proof that the once-waning jobs versus the environment conundrum is alive and well in the Rust Belt.

I don’t know how this tug of war will play out.

But outside the Great Lakes region we’re still seen as deserving of that Rust Belt label. And weakening environmental protections and clinging to coal ash spewing artifacts like the Badger do nothing  to dispel that image.

Embracing lofty endeavors like Great Lakes restoration, as imperfect as it is, and throwing off the tired yokes of the past, like coal, mean that we’re at least headed in the right direction.

For the past few years the Great Lakes region has been trying to move toward a brighter environmental and economic future. But it’s having trouble getting up to speed.

Until we’re willing to let go of those relics from the past, we’re not going very far.

5 thoughts on “Environment and the economy: Forward or reverse for the region?

  1. Pingback: Research to examine possibility of powering Great Lakes ships with natural gas | Great Lakes Echo

  2. In general, I support the thrust of Tom’s statements, but there are 2 glaring errors that should be discussed. Lake shore cities will not become ghost towns without salmon, but, many businesses there will lose a significant part of their revenue, and some may be forced to close. There is no one or no entity that is increasing alewife populations except alewives themselves. However, if salmon stocking is discontinued, alewives will surely increase in numbers, perhaps drastically. Salmon, mainly, as well as many other large predator fishes are a primary natural control on alewife populations. I’m not sure why salmon get such a bad rap from some people. An immense incalculable number of recreation hours have been enjoyed by anglers pursuing salmon since 1965.

  3. The former Republican mayor of Whitehall, Michigan supports the largest smokestack polluter on the Great Lakes. He loves the long history of smoke and ash, oh wait, he brags of getting free tickets.

  4. Will Chicago dry up and blow away if the locks are closed? Nope! Will lake shore cities become ghost towns without salmon? Nope! Politics has not and will not ever solve our problems. The hypocrites that say they are against invasive species, yet increase the alewives, have no business managing our lakes. If history is followed, they wont do anything until the Asian carp start knocking little old ladies off the piers, or jump a brige railing into traffic, Michigan has several they can clear. I’m told there’s more meetings planned for 2012, more talk no action.

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