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Published: Friday, 3/9/2007

Cleaning up Michigan's water

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - First came the round goby, a worthless little pest fish that eats the eggs and young hatchlings of native species like yellow perch and pickerel. Then followed the zebra mussel, clogging drains and motors and everything else.

Now it is VHS - viral hemorrhagic septicemia - a disease that causes fish to bleed to death internally. So far, it has been reported in lakes Ontario, Erie, and St. Clair. Conservationists hope desperately to keep it out of the upper Great Lakes. Most experts think they don't have a prayer.

What all these pests have in common is that they are believed to have arrived in the ballast water of oceangoing vessels. They are heavily damaging and changing the ecosystem, and there are real fears of more infestations to come.

U.S. Rep. Candice Miller (R., Mich.) wants to do something about it - and has a bill designed to clean up Michigan's water. She is a proudly conservative Republican from Macomb County who was secretary of state before being elected to Congress in 2002.

She isn't a fan of big government, but she recognizes that there are some problems "truly international in scope" for which the only answer is federal intervention. Her bill would set a new standard that would require vessels to dump contaminated ballast water 50 miles away from American shores. She would also require that such ships' water compartments be 10 times cleaner than the standards currently set by the International Maritime Organization.

"Contaminated ballast water has done incredible harm to the Great Lakes," she said in an interview. "Michigan has a tough standard, but some of the other Great Lakes states don't, and without a federal standard this costs us money and doesn't do much good."

Water is something intimately important to the 52-year-old congressman. Her family owned a marina, and she grew up on Lake St. Clair. She and her husband like to be on a boat every chance they get. The sight of beaches clotted with dead fish bleeding from their eyeballs makes her angry.

Ironically, she introduced essentially the same bill a year ago, when her party still controlled Congress, but it got nowhere. "I have to say that there is a powerful shipping lobby, and they will fight against this bill, because it would cost them money."

Her bill, which has several Democratic co-sponsors, including U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Ohio), would give shippers time to get in compliance; its provisions wouldn't take effect till 2010. U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D., Mich.) has introduced a similar bill in the Senate; his, however, wouldn't take full effect till 2012.

Both bills are being supported by environmentalists but have been criticized for taking so long to do anything about the problem. Ironically, she doesn't seem to think the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ought to be taking a leading role in cleaning up the water.

"They don't have jurisdiction," Ms. Miller said.

But the states of California, Oregon, and Washington disagree. They are plagued with ballast water problems with ships coming from Asia. All have enacted tough new water standards, and additionally are suing the EPA, contending it should regulate ballast water the same as a domestic factory.

Two federal district courts have ruled on behalf of the states, but the cases are now under appeal.

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Andy Guy, director of the Michigan Land Use Institute's Great Lakes Project, thinks he has a solution to sewage that would solve two problems with one flush. Every so often, overflow conditions result in wastewater treatment plants dumping raw sewage into the Great Lakes. Last year, this amounted to enough to fill 3,650 Olympic-sized swimming pools, he said.

He thinks that is awful, but that there is a solution. "You can use this sewage to produce electric power," he said. Not just by using the methane produced by natural decomposition.

"With the aid of a machine called a digester, we could dispose of our sewage and generate enough electricity to power more than 25,000 homes a year. All that would be left other than energy is some clean and easily reusable compost," he said.



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