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Published: 5/23/2012

Barrier failure raises Asian carp worries

Lawmakers call for investigation into failure

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

For 13 minutes on May 2, the electricity that energizes an electric barrier protecting Lake Erie from the voracious Asian carp living in the Mississippi River system went dead. Now, a group of Great Lakes congressmen want to know if it can happen again.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) has sent a letter signed by her and 29 fellow lawmakers to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requesting a detailed report on what went wrong.

"As things stand, the barrier is our strongest line of defense against an invasion of Asian carp into Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes ecosystem," Miss Kaptur said. "We need to know why the barrier and backup system failed and what corrective measures the corps has taken since the failure."

The letter to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, said the brief failure of the barriers points up the danger of "short-term" solutions.

Lt. Col. James Schreiner, deputy commander of the Army Corps of Engineers' Chicago district, said two of three barriers were operating at the time and both failed. Backup generators were activated, but a power surge prevented them from immediately delivering electricity to the barriers.

He said the Corps has fixed the problem and is working to make sure it doesn't recur. He does not believe any Asian carp snuck through because researchers are confident that the leading edge of the Asian carp species is at least 18 miles upstream, at the Dresden Pool.

Researchers have tagged and monitored 182 fish in the Dresden Pool, including 18 Asian carp, and none of the Asian carp has been detected downstream from it.

"We're confident there was no passage," Colonel Schreiner said.

The three barriers in the man-made Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal deliver pulses of electricity that discourage fish from trying to swim near the barrier and stun any that get close. The barriers are about 37 miles by water from Lake Michigan.

The fish escaped from southern sewage lagoons and fish farms decades ago and have infested the Mississippi and its tributary rivers. Scientists say if the large, aggressive species reaches the Great Lakes, they could damage the region's $7 billion fishing industry.

The letter signers included two Chicago-area lawmakers, one each from Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, four from New York, seven from Ohio -- including U.S. Rep. Bob Latta (R., Bowling Green) -- and 15 from Michigan.

Miss Kaptur said the barriers were designed as "a short-term solution" to the threat of Asian carp invasions and that longer-term options should take into account the barriers' vulnerability to power outages and mechanical failures.

Marblehead charter boat Capt. Rick Unger, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, on Tuesday told The Blade he agrees with the inquiry into the failure of the electric barrier and called for a permanent separation of the Mississippi and Great Lakes systems.

"What we do know about these carp, once they get into a water system they completely take it over," Mr. Unger said. "They are plankton and phytoplankton feeders. These are big animals and they have voracious appetites. They eliminate the food chain for the walleye, the perch, the bass.

"We've argued and argued about the electronic barriers. We're not confident that they are capable of doing the job that they are supposed to do and we would like to see a permanent separation of that shipping channel," Mr. Unger said.

Colonel Schreiner said the Army corps' Great Lakes Mississippi River Interbasin Study is looking at 90 technologies and strategies for keeping invasive species out of the Great Lakes. One is "hydrologic separation" of the Chicago shipping channel and the Great Lakes.

"That could, at the end of the day, be one of the options that that feasibility study is going to present to the congressional leadership as well as all of our constituents," Colonel Schreiner said.

Contact Tom Troy at tomtroy@theblade.com, or 419-724-6058.



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