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How the invaders got here: "Pandora's Locks"

The Seaway's 50th anniversary has inspired a number of new books about the waterway. One blames the federal government, not the shipping industry, for the invasion of foreign species into the Great Lakes that has cost the region billions of dollars. The Environment Report's Lester Graham talks with author Jeff Alexander about his new book, Pandora's Locks.

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Lester Graham
April 20, 2009

Invasive species hitchike on foreign cargo ships and end up in US waterways. Lester Graham talked with the author of a new book about why the government has done so little to stop these aquatic invaders that are damaging the environment:

Lester Graham: "Maybe you've heard about Zebra Mussels. The thumbnail-sized mussels have invaded freshwater lakes, rivers, clogged water intake pipes, and damaged the environment across a good portion of the US - and they're still spreading. The Zebra Mussel is just one of dozens and dozens of invasive species brought into the US by foreign cargo ships entering the Great Lakes though the St. Lawrence Seaway, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. What happens is ships in Europe or Africa or Asia take on ballast water, sucking up millions of gallons of water from a foreign port. Aquatic life is sucked up with it. Then, as the ships take on cargo in the Great Lakes, the ballast water is discharged, and with it things like Zebra Mussels and other foreign pests. Many of those species have spread from the Great Lakes into the Mississippi River system, and then transported by recreational boating in every direction from there. Jeff Alexander has written a book that chronicles not only those invasions, but the utter failure of the government to do anything effective to stop these introductions. Jeff, you make the argument that these invasive species, biological pollution if you will, amount to a more serious environmental disaster than the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska. How's that?"

Jeff Alexander: "Well the Valdez, there's no discounting the severity of the Valdez oil spill. But oil spills, over time, can be cleaned up to a certain extent, and the ecosystem can recover. In the Great Lakes, ocean freighters have brought in 57 species, they've caused billions of dollars in damage, and they've transformed the entire ecosystem."

Graham: "There are eight states that border the Great Lakes, and members of Congress are aware of this problem, why haven't they taken action to ensure this problem is dealt with once and for all?"

Alexander: "The shipping lobby has been very effective at keeping regulations at bay, the Coast Guard, which is the lead agency in the US, has just totally dropped the ball on this issue. They're the ones who're supposed to be the guardians of the Great Lakes when it comes to ships, and the Coast Guard is very close to the shipping industry. They have social events together every year. A lot of people blame the shipping industry for this problem, but I tend not to. They certainly have fought the regulations but, in the end, the reason that we have regulatory agencies is to protect public health and the environment. And our regulatory agencies haven't done the job, and our politicians haven't done the job - no one seems to have the backbone to stand up to the shipping industry and deal with this problem."

Graham: "Are the foreign ships that bring in this cargo and take away grain or the other things from the Midwest so economically valuable that it is worth this economic and environmental cost?"

Alexander: "There is some debate on that, but the best economic study estimated if we kept these ocean freighters out of the Great Lakes, made them offload their cargo in Montreal and put it on trains and trucks, it would cost us an extra $55 million a year to move that cargo. That's compared to the estimate of $200 million a year that foreign species are costing us in terms of economic and environmental damage. It's not a stretch to make the case that the environmental and economic costs have far exceeded the economic benefits."

Graham: "Jeff Alexander's new book is 'Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway'. Thanks, Jeff."

Alexander: "Thank you."

Jeff Alexander spoke with The Environment Report's Lester Graham.

© 2009 Environment Report

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