What happens in Superior doesn’t stay in Superior

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Gary Wilson

Gary Wilson


You don’t hear much in Chicago about Lake Superior.

The Chicago water focus is Lake Michigan as it provides drinking water for millions and countless recreational and economic opportunities. That’s to be expected as the lake defines the city as much as the Magnificent Mile does. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is fond of calling Lake Michigan “our Grand Canyon” trying to equate it to more prominent national icons.

Lake Superior?

No, it doesn’t get much mention here. Its major city is Duluth 500 miles away so there’s no commercial connection. Plus we’re provincial and have more ego than most Great Lake cities.

Heck, I suspect most Chicagoans don’t know much about the environmental disaster that is the Grand Calumet River and it’s only 20 miles south of Chicago’s tony Oak Street beach.

Chicago isn’t alone.

At high-profile Great Lakes Week conferences in Detroit and Cleveland the last two years a few of us media types commented on how little mention Lake Superior was receiving. And Superior could hold the volume of water of the other Great Lakes combined plus a few more Lake Eries.

That lack of attention needs to change as issues that threaten Lake Superior are moving apace.

Crude oil tankers and mines     chicagoview

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported this week that an oil refiner in Superior, Wis. wants to build a loading facility that would allow it “to ship crude oil on the Great Lakes and through connecting waterways.”

In a press release, Calumet Specialty Partners president Jennifer Straumins said “the project would provide connected refineries with another form of access to heavy Canadian and light (Bakken) crude oil.”

If the project goes forward it is expected be operational in 2015.

At the same time Wisconsin is on the cusp of approving a controversial iron mining bill in the Bad River region that borders Lake Superior.

The issues there are all too familiar. The new mine will create jobs for a region in need, but mines don’t necessarily have good environmental track records. Tribes in the area are concerned about the mining operation’s impact on their land and they have legal standing to object, but their concerns seem to have been set aside.

Toss in allegations that the legislation allowing the mine to go forward was heavily influenced by the mining industry and you have a familiar scenario.  Jobs pitted against the environment – this time near the largest and most pristine of the Great Lakes.

But if you live in Chicago (or Cleveland or Buffalo) should you care about what happens on Lake Superior?

Yes you should.

That’s because how we’re connected is becoming more apparent all the time. As a region we aren’t immune from each other’s problems:

  • Hurricane Sandy hit land a thousand miles away but caused flooding in the Great Lakes region. The near-record waves it generated caused lake freighters to seek safe harbor.
  • Whatever happens with Chicago’s waterways system will impact all of the Great Lakes as the system is a primary vector for aquatic invasive species.
  • And a decision whether to let Waukesha, Wis. have access to Lake Michigan water could set precedent allowing other cities to insert a straw into a Great Lake a while lake levels are low and ground water supplies are decreasing.

Back to shipping Canadian crude oil from Superior via tankers.

Quietly mentioned was that the shipments would go through “connecting waterways.” That means through the Straits of Mackinac and down the narrows of the Detroit River.

That caught Josh Mogerman’s attention and he was quick to point out the perils of shipping oil on water.

“Eighty thousand gallons of oil were just spilled into the Mississippi River over the weekend when a barge hit a bridge” said Mogerman, the Midwest communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago.

Mogerman questions the necessity and reasonability of “opening another line of risk” in the already stressed Great Lakes.

Prevention… maybe.

There is a lot of talk about prevention related to protecting the Great Lakes these days. Preventing a problem from happening is light years more efficient environmentally and economically than dealing with it after the fact.

The recently signed Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada lists prevention as one of its principles. Specifically it says—“anticipating and preventing pollution and other threats to the quality of the Waters of the Great Lakes to reduce overall risks to the environment and human health.”

Sounds good but it’s also abstract. How does that principle actualize to prevent a spill of crude oil from a tanker that hits a bridge in a connecting channel? That’s the test of the agreement.

The much publicized Great Lakes Restoration Initiative lists prevention as a priority related to invasive species but by design doesn’t focus on environmentally risky mining operations near Lake Superior.

I don’t know if we’ll see big oil tankers on the Great Lakes, but I hope not. We don’t need them or the risk they bring. My read of the tea leaves — always dangerous — in Wisconsin says that the controversial mining bill will be passed.

And I have no idea what to expect concerning Waukesha’s request for Lake Michigan water. It’s a questionable request as it sits today and politics more than merit could be the deciding factor.

Environmental groups may be able to tip the decision if they can channel President Barack Obama’s new found second term toughness. But that requires them to abandon their need to prove that the Great Lakes Compact is working when it may not be.

We’ve all heard the marketing pitch that what happens in a certain western gambling town stays in that town.

Well that’s not the case in the Great Lakes region.

The lakes are connected as are the economies of the region and that leads to a perception of us from outside. Are we still the Rust Belt?  Allowing crude oil tankers on the lakes and dangerous mining operations near the greatest of our lakes says yes, that’s who we are and want to be.

Do we really want risky oil tankers and mining operations to define us for decades to come?

Or are we ready to move to a progressive model based on prevention, precaution and that new standard of care that we hear so much about?

How we handle Lake Superior’s immediate issues may answer that question.




13 thoughts on “What happens in Superior doesn’t stay in Superior

  1. Anonymous–

    Yes, I’m aware that oil currently moves on the Great Lakes.

    While you didn’t cite a source for the data provided I’m guessing it is this Army Corps of Engineers site which last lists shipments for 2005.


    The question I raised is not about the past but what is in the best interests of the Great Lakes for the future. Does it make sense ecologically and economically to continue to ship heavy crude as the region tries to restore the Great Lakes? Do we want to continue using the lakes to support legacy industries that led to their degradation?

    We as a region should have that discussion versus accepting that what was done in the past is good for the future.

    A posting tip.

    Citing sources and not posting anonymously increases credibility.

    Thanks for engaging in the discussion.

    Gary Wilson

  2. I assume you folks know that oil is the 3rd largest commodity group currently shipped on the Lakes (at least it was in 2005).

    The proposal isn’t unique for Lake Superior. Oil moves on into Thunder Bay. Not even unique for Wisconsin. The Port of Green Bay shipped well ove a million barrels last year.

    There’s over 400,000 Bbls of oil (most of it crude oil) moved every day on the Great Lakes. Most of it is Canadian crude oil bound for refineries in the US (either on the Lakes or the East Coast). It’s been happening for decades without there ever being a significant spill.

    The proposal in Superior is nothing new.

  3. When I first heard about this idea to transport oil across Lake Superior, my only thought was “Edmund Fitzgerald- full of oil.” What a truly BAD IDEA. This must not be allowed to happen.

  4. Lake Superior will and probably already is benefitting from Lake Erie issues. The push to preserve wetlands, improved sustainabililty along the shore, nutrient loadings, invasives, etc. all benefit Lake Superior. Fortunately, Lake Erie is shallow and we can ‘see’ the problems sooner – like nutrients, development along the shore, invasices etc. We can address the problems and get results pretty quick. Lake Erie turns over every 2.6 years, Lake Superior 191 years(western basin of Lake Erie turns over every 30-45 dyas). By the time Lake Superior gets ‘sick’ like Lake Erie my guess is all of the Great Lakes waters would be in bad shape.
    So while Superior may be a sleeper in conversation, Lake Erie sets the stage for getting nutrient load reductions, finds out that in Lake monitoring is critical to evaluate success, tries to figure out invasive sources and ways to keep populations down once they come, demonstrates the impacts of hard shorelines etc.
    Lake Erie helps to set policies for the Great Lakes. What is sad is that Lake Erie does not get the help it needs quicker – as with algae. There has been evidence of increasing dissolved reactive phosphorous since 1995. Yet it took a green Lake Erie in 2011 to get action. Again if this happended in Lake Superior, all of the Great Lakes would be green and udnesireable.

  5. Dave Ullrich wrote to tell me that the region’s mayors will be holding their next two conferences on Lake Superior.

    “FYI, we will be having our June 2013 meeting in Marquette on Lake Superior and June 2014 in Thunder Bay, also on Lake Superior.”

    Ullrich is the Executive Director of the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.. an organization of U.S. and Canadian mayors who focus on Great Lakes issues.

    Gary Wilson

  6. The Compact requires Waukesha to return the water to the lake after use. They have said they will return at least the volume of water they take. There would be no negative impact on lake levels.

  7. One note on Waukeshaw: I have heard that Waukeshaw is planning for a silica sand processing plant to be built there (silica sand is used in fracking operations). Is there any information on how that is progressing and how much water it would use?

  8. Good column, Gary. The conservative approach is clearly to prevent some of these disasters from happening but, unfortunately, we don’t have many true conservatives in government these days.

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