LANSING, MI – Michigan officials say they may go to court seeking a permanent solution to the threat posed by the Asian carp to the Great Lakes. They say that could become more urgent now that it appears at least one carp has jumped an electric barrier that's supposed to keep the fish out of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. That would leave only a shipping lock in the canal stopping the carp from reaching Lake Michigan.
Michigan officials say a state bordered on three sides by the Great Lakes has the most to lose if the Asian carp makes its way into that water system. Michigan has already spent a fortune battling other invasive species, such as the sea lamprey, the zebra mussel, and the round goby. And officials say the Asian carp may pose the biggest threat yet to the Great Lakes ecosystem. Nick DeLeeuw is the spokesman for Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox.
"We have these carp," he says. "They're on the doorstep. Letting them in is unacceptable. It's plainly unacceptable, so whatever needs to be done to prevent that from happening is what will be done."
DeLeeuw says the attorney general has been exploring legal options for the past couple of weeks. He sent letters to the Army Corps of Engineers and Illinois and Chicago officials asking them to outline the short-term and long-term steps that are being taken to ensure Asian carp don't make it into Lake Michigan.
"There are really three points of relief we are looking for," he adds. "Increased monitoring. We want to make sure the fish are being monitored - we understand where the carp are. Second, additional poison, if that's what's effective and, third, possibly closing the locks down to make sure these fish don't get into Lake Michigan."
Michigan's attorney general is facing pressure to act quickly. Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and several environmental groups have called on Cox to file a lawsuit seeking to close the locks, if that's what it takes.
"The longer we wait, the more likely that carp are going to escape from the canal and into Lake Michigan. So, the risk increases the longer the delays," she says.
Andy Buchsbaum is an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation. Buchsbaum says environmental groups are trying to pull other Great Lakes states and maybe some private organizations into a possible lawsuit seeking to shut down the locks.
"That's why Michigan's action is appreciated, but Michigan has to be ready to take the next step and Attorney General Cox needs to go from contemplating litigation to actually filing a lawsuit," he says.
Buchsbaum says Michigan could sue U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in federal court, probably in Chicago. He says the lawsuit could claim the Asian carp is a public nuisance threatening recreational activities and commercial fishing throughout the Great Lakes, and that current efforts to contain the fish are inadequate. He says Michigan and other plaintiffs could ask a federal judge to order the canal sealed until a permanent separation of the Mississippi River system and the Great Lakes can be engineered.
But there are also powerful interests opposed to closing the canal. Seventeen tons of coal, steel, chemicals, and other commodities are shipped through the canal every year, says Lynn Muench with the American Waterways Operators.
"If you moved all those to rail cars, you'd have almost 300,000 more rail cars coming through Chicago." he explains. "If you moved everything by truck, you'd increase the truck traffic in Chicago by 1.29 million more trucks."
Muench says that would cost a lot of money, and cause a lot more air pollution in the Great Lakes region.
But Ken DeBeaussart, who is the director of Michigan's office of the Great Lakes, says the multi-billion dollar recreational and commercial Great Lakes fishing industry is also at risk, as well as the quality of life of people who live in the region.
"Well, we're talking about a serious ecological threat that I think on a long-term basis far exceeds the short-term impacts we might see from the closure of the canals," he says.
The Michigan attorney general's office says a decision on how to move forward could be made in the next few days. If an Asian carp is actually found in the canal, things could start moving even more quickly.