Plodding action on critical issues threatens Great Lakes

A recent report on Michigan Public Radio asked a simple question, one that produced a disturbing answer.

The question: Why does it take 40 years to clean up a river?

The question referred to the scandalously slow effort to clean up dioxin in Michigan’s Tittabawassee River.

Dioxin from Dow Chemical’s factory in Midland, Mich., poisoned sediment in the river decades ago. Every time the river floods, it sweeps more of the dioxin-laced sediment downstream, poisoning fish and wildlife as the water heads for Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay.

State and federal officials have known since the 1970s that dioxin from Dow had poisoned the river. Sadly, little has done to clean up the mess, despite the fact that dioxin — widely regarded as one of the world’s most toxic chemicals — causes cancer and a host of other health effects in fish, wildlife and humans.

Michigan Radio’s Environment Report has done a masterful job of documenting this environmental debacle. The award winning reports can be found here.

The plodding effort to clean up the Dow’s dioxin mess is symptomatic of a larger problem with politicians and government agencies charged with protecting the environment and public health. In a nutshell, it takes our government far too long to solve many critical problems.

One need look no further than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ handling of the Asian carp crisis. For more than a decade, the Corps and other government agencies have known that Asian carp — which were imported to commercial fish farms in Arkansas in the 1960s and later escaped into the Mississippi River — were swimming toward the Great Lakes.

These menacing fish, which are voracious eaters and multiply at rates that put rabbits to shame, could devastate the $7 billion Great Lakes fishery. And Asian silver carp, which rocket out of the water when disturbed by the sound of boat motors, could pose potentially deadly threats to the region’s boaters.

The Corps has dithered on the Asian carp issue for years. Now the fish are now on the brink of invading Lake Michigan and laying siege to the Great Lakes.

One would think that such a looming catastrophe would trigger urgent action by the Corps. Instead, the Corps will spend the next four years studying the best way to keep Asian carp in the Mississippi River system from invading Lake Michigan.

For years, the Corps told the public that an electric fish barrier in the Chicago Waterway System was keeping Asian carp from reaching Lake Michigan. But a recent study, by the Corps’ own consultant, found that the barrier doesn’t deter all sizes of Asian carp.

The Corps’ response: More studies.

I know that patience is a virtue but sometimes it’s a curse, particularly when the fate of the Great Lakes is at stake.

It took the U.S. just 11 years to figure out how to put a man on the moon. We should be able to clean up a polluted river and stop a menacing fish in less time.

Granted, cleaning up dioxin and stopping a flood of invasive fish is a complicated and costly task. But it’s not rocket science.