Lawmakers: Barge owners hold Asian carp report hostage

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The White House is continuing to hold up the release of a draft plan to slow Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes through the Illinois River, nearly two months after the report was first delayed, Michigan lawmakers say.

Nearly a dozen lawmakers, including several from Michigan’s delegation, met Tuesday evening at the U.S. Capitol with Trump administration officials, including representatives from the White House, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Fish & Wildlife, the U.S. Geological Service and the Interior Department.

The officials told lawmakers the reason for the delay is to allow the Trump administration to review concerns raised by downriver barge operators and others in the commercial shipping industry who are worried about how measures to fight the invasive species could affect waterway navigation.

Undertaken two years ago, the draft report for fighting Asian carp at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam project near Joliet, Illinois, was due to be released by the Army Corps on Feb. 28, but was delayed at the direction of the White House.

Before releasing the plan, the administration wants its new assistant secretary of the Army for Civil Works to take office and review the issue. But the White House has not yet nominated anyone for the post, which requires confirmation by the Senate.

“There was bipartisan frustration at this meeting by House and Senate members, and we sent a message loud and clear to the White House that we expect them to give us the information, so that the public has the opportunity to react to it,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Lansing Democrat who led the meeting as co-chair of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force.

“And if there’s concerns by a few barge interests, they will have ample opportunity to give input during the public comment period. ... But we are stalled right now in terms of moving forward on a permanent solution until the White House will release this report.”

Great Lakes lawmakers are concerned about Asian carp reaching the freshwater lakes, where the fish could devastate the ecosystem and harm the region’s sport fishing market and boating and hunting industries.

Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, attended the meeting and said leaders should err on the side of “urgency and transparency” based on the significance of the threat posed by Asian carp.

“We want a long-term strategy that we can implement quickly and have a permanent solution. That’s where this recommendation is so important. That’s why we’re urging the release of this report,” Moolenaar said.

“We asked for specific timeline and possible dates of release and were not given any concrete answer on that, so that was disappointing. And we’ll continue to push for that.”

The interim study is expected to recommend measures and their cost estimates for how best to prevent Asian carp from traveling beyond the lock and dam, which is 286 miles above the confluence of the Illinois River and the Mississippi River. The location is considered a choke point in the fight against invasive species reaching Great Lakes waterways.

Federal agencies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on stopgap measures, including placing electric barriers for the destructive species in the Chicago Area Waterway System.

Stabenow and Moolenaar said they did receive good news at the meeting, learning from the Fish & Wildlife Service that temporary efforts to slow the progress of adult Asian carp has pushed back evidence of their spawning to 100 miles south of Lake Michigan.

The Army Corps of Engineers first announced the Brandon Road Lock and Dam evaluation in April 2015 during the Obama administration as part of the ongoing Great Lakes and Mississippi River Basin Study. The study was expected to cost up to $8.2 million and take nearly four years.

A spokesman for the Army Corps, Alan Marshall in the district office in Rock Island, Illinois, said Wednesday morning he did not have any updated information when the draft report would be released.

Among those in attendance at the meeting was Brad Beyer, White House liaison to the Department of Defense. A White House official said Wednesday that “due to the complexity of the issues raised by the broad range of stakeholders, the Army Corps is holding off on the release of the report to continue with its examination.”

Bipartisan members of Michigan's delegation have written to Trump, along with other Great Lakes lawmakers, asking for him to direct the Army Corps to release the study.

“My concern would be that they would try to not release this ever. Are they trying to kill this report? I don’t know. But the fact is that U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Geological Service — there’s wide array of people deeply concerned about this (issue), including the Army Corps,” Stabenow said.

“That would be my concern, only because there are some barge owners that find it a nuisance, even though it does not hamper them from being able to move up the river.”

Moolenaar said it was unclear from officials the scope or nature of the concerns raised over river navigation.

“It wasn’t identified exactly what those concerns were, whether they had concerns with the analysis or technologies. That’s where we need to have the report to understand what the components of the proposal would look like,” he said.

“My argument would be that we need to find a balance between the economic interests, as well as protect the Great Lakes and the fishing industry. We can’t afford to see our Great Lakes heritage threatened.”

A Feb. 23 letter to President Donald Trump from 16 Republican members of Congress, largely from Illinois and Indiana, argued the Brandon Road Lock study would have “significant implications” for commercial vessel traffic at the Brandon Road Lock and, by extension, the regional economy.

They argued that existing actions to mitigate the risk of Asian carp moving upriver have been successful, and the Corps, therefore, “should not hastily recommend a structural alternative that could negatively impact the economy and the safety of towboat crews.”

The Illinois and Indiana representatives urged the Trump administration to delay release of the draft report.

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