Lawmakers seek forced release of Asian carp report

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A bipartisan team of lawmakers introduced legislation on Wednesday that would force the Trump administration to release a long-awaited report on ways to slow Asian carp from infiltrating the Great Lakes.

The draft report for fighting the invasive species at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam project near Joliet, Illinois, was held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the direction of the Trump administration on the eve of its planned Feb. 28 release.

The legislation — called the Stop Asian Carp Now Act — is significant because one of its lead sponsors is a Michigan Republican who helped deliver votes in west Michigan for President Donald Trump in 2016, but doesn’t like the administration’s rationale for holding the report hostage for many months.

Trump officials have told members of Congress they want to wait until the next head of the Army Corps takes office before releasing the study — which is viewed as a key step toward getting more safeguards against Asian carp.

“My point to the White House has been they don’t even have a nominee at this point,” said Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga of Zeeland, co-chair the House Great Lakes Task Force. “I’m not willing to wait.”

Huizenga is a lead sponsor of the bill, along with Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, while U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, are the lead sponsors in the Senate. The entire Michigan delegation supports the legislation, which has 31 co-sponsors in the House and seven co-sponsors in the Senate, including the two senators from Illinois.

“It’s incredibly irresponsible for the Trump Administration to continue to block the Army Corps from releasing a crucial plan to address the threat of Asian carp to our Great Lakes,” said Stabenow, co-chair of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force.

Kaptur said it shouldn’t matter whether the Trump administration has appointed the next overseer of the Army Corps because the report is complete and has been “sitting on a shelf” for months.

“How silly is that that we have to even do this?” Kaptur said of the bill. “Congress is very dissatisfied that they haven’t released this study after we provided a billion extra dollars for this fiscal year, so they could complete this and do a lot of other things around the country.”

The delay of the Army Corps report has intensified a tug of war between states.

States including Michigan and Ohio want to guard the health of the Great Lakes and the sport fishing and boating industries they support from the notoriously destructive Asian carp. States such as Illinois and Indiana are concerned that structural changes at Brandon Road would disrupt the commercial barge industry moving billions of dollars’ worth of grain and other goods along the Illinois River.

Earlier this year, 16 Republican members of Congress, mostly from Illinois and Indiana, wrote to Trump asking him to hold up release of the report, saying the project would have “significant implications” for commercial vessel traffic at the Brandon Road lock and, by extension, the regional economy.

They argued that continuing efforts to reduce the risk of Asian carp moving upriver have worked, and the Corps should not “hastily” recommend construction projects that could affect waterway navigation and the safety of towboat crews.

Federal agencies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on stopgap measures, including fishing for the Asian carp downriver to remove them from waterways and placing electric barriers in the Chicago Area Waterway System to repel or stun the destructive fish.

This Army Corps study was undertaken two years ago, costing an estimated $8 million. It was preceded by earlier reports in 2014 and 2015 as part of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study.

The draft report examines the potential environmental effects of recommended measures for preventing Asian carp from traveling beyond the lock and dam at Brandon Road, which is 286 miles above the confluence of the Illinois and the Mississippi rivers.

The Army Corps has said the Brandon Road lock and dam is considered an ideal site for preventing Asian carp and other aquatic invasive species from progressing farther upstream in part because its physical configuration — a 25-foot difference in water elevation at the dam.

Measures under consideration for Brandon Road include construction of an engineered channel, an electric barrier, water-propulsion jets and noise cannons, according to the Army Corps’ earlier reports.

Barge and towboat companies and others that use the lock at Brandon Road are concerned that a new physical structure would disrupt navigation during construction and maintenance.

The American Waterways Operators, a trade association that submitted comments to the Army Corps in 2015, says an electronic barrier would be “unacceptable,” citing safety concerns.

AWO explained that deck hands must be out on front of towboats when ships are going through a navigation lock, increasing the risk of falling overboard. The association noted this would be especially dangerous if the water were electrified.

When the draft report is released, the Army Corps collects public comment for 45 days before reviews by the agency and state, followed by a Chief of Engineers report, said Allen Marshall, spokesman for the Army Corps’ Rock Island District.

(202) 662-8736