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House adopts bill requiring updated mapping for Great Lakes

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

The U.S. House on Thursday approved legislation to require the updating of Great Lakes environmental maps for use in response to an oil spill that largely haven’t been updated for more than 20 years.

The bill, which passed by voice vote, was led by Michigan Sen. Gary Peters and Rep. Dan Kildee, both Democrats. The legislation passed the Senate last month but, due to a technical change in the House, it will have to go back through the Senate again before heading to the president's desk, a Peters aide said.

The maps, which are maintained by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summarize resources near the lakeshore like shellfish beds, marshes, tidal flats, public beaches, parks and endangered and threatened species that would be at risk in oil spill.

The waves of Lake Michigan splash against the shore of Muskegon.

The Environmental Sensitivity Index maps are critical to aiding responders after a spill to reduce the environmental impact and help target cleanup efforts, NOAA says.The maps may also be used by emergency-response planners to identify vulnerable locations and to establish priorities and cleanup strategies, according to the agency.

"It's really important that we be completely up to date on environmental sensitivity in the Great Lakes," said Kildee of Flint Township, whose district includes 118 miles of Lake Huron shoreline.

"There are real threats to the lakes. And we need to make sure that if an event occurs, an oil spill or some other disaster, that we can move quickly to protect our most sensitive assets. And that's what that's what the Environmental Sensitivity Index maps are supposed to show us." 

Rep. Bill Huizenga, the Zeeland Republican whose district includes 100 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, acknowledged the legislation isn't as "headline-grabbing" as others but is still critical to communities across the lakes region.

"While maps for the East Coast, West Coast and the Gulf Coast have all been updated recently, maps for the Great Lakes have not been updated for over 20 years," Huizenga said on the House floor. 

"Having this updated information will help us analyze and assess the threats facing the Great Lakes and allow us to be more proactive, instead of 100% reactive."

At a 2018 field hearing in Traverse City, NOAA indicated the agency had updated ESI maps for two priority areas in the Great Lakes, including the Straits of Mackinac, but that other maps in the Great Lakes had not been updated in over two decades, according to Peters' office. Thursday's legislation requires the maps to be updated periodically going forward.

Peters said the updated maps will provide researchers and scientists with more information and tools to help protect the Great Lakes.

“The Great Lakes are not only an economic engine and treasured environmental resource — they are simply in our DNA as Michiganders,” said Peters, who sits on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. 

“It is critical for Michigan and our entire country that protection efforts for the Great Lakes are provided the same resources and attention as other major bodies of water and shorelines."

With Thursday's vote, Peters has passed six bills though both chambers of Congress this term under President Donald Trump, which is more than any other Senate Democrat, according to Senate records. The bill is Peters' 10th to pass both chambers since he took office in 2015.

Co-sponsors of the mapping bill include Reps. Huizenga; Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph; Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and David Joyce, R-Ohio, in the House as well as Indiana Sen. Todd Young, a Republican. 

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the map updates will cost $2 million. 

The mapping bill comes after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took legal action last month, moving to shut down Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac, arguing the pipeline presents an "unreasonable risk" to the Great Lakes. 

The move followed years of environmental concerns about the 67-year-old dual pipelines and the risk the lines present were they to rupture beneath the straits.

But fuel industry officials and independent experts have argued that shutting down Line 5 would cut off not only thousands of gallons of propane a day in the Upper Peninsula but also light crude shipments to Detroit, Toledo and Sarnia, Ontario, where refineries convert the oil into gas, diesel and jet fuel.

Line 5 owner Enbridge Energy has since sued Whitmer and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in federal court to challenge the state's decision, seeking a ruling that federal commerce and pipeline safety laws preempt state regulations. 

Staff writer Beth Leblanc contributed.