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.
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.
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.