Chicago communities win in a mixed Great Lakes news week


Gary Wilson


There was a lot of Great Lakes action this week that I’ll label the good, the bad and the unknown.

The good is that Chicago’s two antique coal-fired power plants are closing sooner than expected.

They were scheduled for shutdown in 2018 but that date has advanced to 2014 based on a deal the plant’s operators made with Chicago.  The plants bordered on the largely Hispanic Pilsen and Little Village communities where citizens have long expressed outrage. They complain that the plants would have been shut long ago had they been located near a more affluent neighborhood.

Several environmental groups had sued the plant’s operator for violation of the Clean Air Act and those suits will now be dropped as part of the deal.

Given their location and the toxic nature of the emissions, it is hard to overstate the positive impact of the plant closings.

“The decision to retire these dinosaurs will have important positive impacts on Chicago, Chicagoans and Lake Michigan” says Josh Mogerman, media director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago. The Council is one of the groups that sued the plants.”The mess coming out of those smokestacks also impacted the Great Lakes,” he said

The bad news relates to the split-personality of the Obama administration on actions relevant to invasive species and the Great Lakes. Remember, this administration has said that it would have “zero-tolerance” for invasive species.

In seeming rapid fire succession the administration:

  •  announced it was budgeting $51 million this year to fight Asian carp.
  •  released a draft ballast water permit that had environmental groups threatening legal action because after years, the permit offers only a small incremental improvement.
  • again prevailed before the Supreme Court against Michigan and other Great Lakes states who want Chicago’s locks leading to Lake Michigan closed. The locks are seen as the last line of defense against the advancing carp.

The $51 million to fight Asian carp is necessary and commendable but only continues a reaction instead of a prevention policy.

The shipping industry is pleased with the EPA’s draft ballast water permit, which means environmental groups aren’t.

But the Supreme Court ruling may not be as onerous as it seems.

The Supreme Court decision is not surprising, says Nick Schroeck who runs Wayne State University’s Environmental Law Center in Detroit.  It’s a tough venue to crack with a case like this. Of more importance is that Michigan’s public nuisance suit on the broader issues regarding Asian carp is still proceeding, he said.

An appeals court has ruled that Asian carp would likely cause significant harm if they become established in the Great Lakes. That’s a key ruling that allows the case to go forward with a chance of success, Schroeck said.

Finally, an unknown.

Flying well below the radar this week is the introduction of a bill in the Minnesota legislature that would make it easier for Minnesota to sell water. More specifically, the description of the bill contains the following – …”setting standards for diversion or sale of water of the state … ”

The introduction of “sale” appears to be new and what is the motivation behind the bill? Does Minnesota have potential out-of-state buyers of water in mind and now wants to craft legislation to permit a sale?

How does the proposed legislation relate to the Great Lakes Compact? Could it be another ding in the compact’s armor? We’ve already seen that the states have little stomach for implementing some of the compact’s provisions.

Right now there are more questions than answers on Minnesota’s water sale legislation. But an immediate inquiry is warranted about Minnesota’s intent. Waiting to see what happens is never a good idea when it comes to selling the region’s water.

Finally, yes, I know, because my inbox has been inundated with tweets and press releases — this week featured Great Lakes Day in D.C.

The Great Lakes intelligentsia — commissions, environmentalists and agency staffers — gathered for the annual lobbying confab which this year featured a visit to mingle with and listen to administration staffers at the White House.

It’s good and necessary work.

But honestly, whatever happened in D.C. is unlikely to have the impact that the closing of the two coal-fired power plants will have. At least not now.

If you don’t believe me, just ask those residents of Chicago’s Pilsen and Little Village communities.

They live amidst the polluting plants, not in the rarefied air next to the Potomac.

They don’t have a lot of access to the White House.

11 thoughts on “Chicago communities win in a mixed Great Lakes news week

  1. Thanks Don for your comment.

    In general, the big Great Lakes environmental groups are willing to accept small incremental changes in policy and prefer working from the inside with politicians.

    On ballast water, historically west coast groups have tended to be much more aggressive.

    I’ll reserve judgment on the merits of the incremental improvement policy but will address it in a future commentary.


  2. Having watched the history of some environmentalist groups supporting a states rights approach to ballast water, I believe the reality about ballast water now shows that the environmental groups that opposed strong legislation passed 395-7 in 2008 in favor of a states rights approach now have achieved nothing equal, especially as NY backs down under pressure. This president knows without national news coverage and the public not aware of the political history or dangers of ballast water, any action he now takes will cause these same environmental groups to heap praise on him in order to save face, even if he acts with a weak EPA and Coast Guard plan that will effectively crush the further strengthening of protections long into the future. This scenario will play out as the political will shown in 2008 has been killed. Sadly these environmental groups that pursued this policy of states rights will want to spot-lite themselves as having helped influence this administration to take a step forward when the reality is they will have helped create a weak EPA and military policy to protect our waters. Possibly even being subject to the next commander and chief’s direction of our Coast Guard priorities while trying to eliminate the EPA.

  3. I agree Gary, but special minority interests, seem to have control over the controllers, regardless of public opinion, or the facts.

  4. A comment on money.

    A certain amount of federal funding is necessary to restore the Great Lakes. The scope of some of the work is beyond the financial capabilites of the states. Cleaning up the legacy pollutant hotspots is a prime example.

    But securing the closure of the Chicago coal-fired power plants wasn’t about money. It’s success is directly attributable to three things. 1) the dogged persistence of the citizens living near the plants, 2) those citizens receiving legal support from groups like the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and others, 3)a new Chicago mayor who was willing to use the power of his office to broker a deal.

    A Michigan example of a major accomplishment without money is the successful suit brought by the citizens of Mecosta in their action against Nestle Water.

    Right now the pleading for federal dollars is drowning out the need to support grassroots action and to hold the states accountable for relaxing important environmental regulations.

    Federal money isn’t required to stop the degradation. Just the will
    of local citizen groups and large enviromental groups.


  5. It’s not just the other Great Lakes states who are upset about our lack of action on the Asian carp. The Canadians are, too.

    Apparently both countries have been equally at fault in tardy action and enforcement of the ballast water issue.

  6. People in this country seem to be more addicted to funding than any other drug I can think of. Powerless without funding, can’t do anything without funding. God forbid anyone should do anything without funding, the system wouldn’t survive the shock!

  7. The Supreme Court decision is not surprising with the Tea Party 5/4 control of the court. At the same time President Obama will be rightfully pegged with his Great Lakes “Obama Carp” legacy as he refused to use executive order to close off the Chicago waterway.

  8. Good observation on the money Tom. Money is needed but money alone will not restore the Great Lakes. Tough decisions on regulation and enforcement need to made.


  9. If we really had a zero tolerance policy in lake Michigan, we wouldn’t have an invasive species problem. There’s no way in Heaven that a healthy native fish population is bad for the environment, but you’d be surprised how many people will argue that point.

    The quality of efforts is reflected by how bright the natural ecosystem shines! Nothing else.
    We have an increasingly healthy invasive ecosystem, that we continue to throw money at, with little or no effect.

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