In Greek mythology, what became known as Pandora's Box was a large container that, when opened, unleashed many unintended ills upon mankind.
In "Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway," a timely and provocative new book just published by Michigan State University Press, there is no myth, but sobering realities about the ills unleashed by ocean ships that entered the lakes through the Seaway that is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Celebration? Author Jeff Alexander suggests there should be a wake because of the 57 destructive invasive species, some that have caused massive die-offs of birds and fish, brought in by ocean "salties" whose ballast discharges the U.S. government has failed to adequately regulate.
"For the lakes, the Seaway was the ecological equivalent of Pandora's Box," writes Alexander, an award-winning environmental journalist honored with a 2007 Notable Book citation from the Library of Michigan. "It released a tidal wave of unintended consequences -- destructive changes that may never be reversed."
In fact, according to University of Notre Dame biology Prof. David M. Lodge in 2007 congressional testimony, "Biological invasions are the least reversible form of pollution. Chemical pollutants ... do not reproduce; species do."
In a recent interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Alexander was asked what the "trigger" was that prompted him to research the book while on unpaid sabbatical from the Muskegon Chronicle.
He replied: "One of my favorite beaches is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore near Traverse City, Mich. On Labor Day in 2007, dead loons and other birds were scattered along the beach, dark green algae fouled the waters and Chinook salmon were floating everywhere. Dead zebra mussels and quagga mussels were piled on the beach. Botulism caused by the invasive mussels and gobies killed the fish and birds."
Current reports of more die-offs underscore the point.
The stunner in Alexander's book is not so much his comprehensive account of damage done by inviting transoceanic freighters into our freshwater seas. It is accounting of "a decade of foot-dragging by the Coast Guard," and of reluctance of the Environmental Protection Agency to protect.
I'm a fan of the U.S. Coast Guard, once writing a book that had a chapter on "Heroes of the Storm," and, like Alexander, admire the remarkable job it does of saving lives and promoting safety on the Great Lakes. It plucks sailors from sinking ships and dangerous seas. Since its inception it has saved the lives of more than one million people. It rescued more than 33,000 people after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2007 -- a rare federal success in that disaster.
But, alas, the guard let its guard down big time on small foreign invaders.
Alexander writes that U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, a physicist "who long has worked on the ballast water issue, said the blame for failing to solve the problem rested solely with the Coast Guard."
Ehlers told Alexander: "I personally think the Coast Guard really fell down on the job. Congress passed a law on invasive species in 1990 and the Coast Guard did nothing. Congress passed another law in 1996 and the Coast Guard did nothing. They really didn't want anything to do with it -- they didn't see it as part of their mission. And they tended to side with the shipping industry."
Alexander cited numerous examples of the Coast Guard's chummy relations with the industry and "hands-off approach to regulating ballast water." He also criticized the EPA for resisting taking a protective role on the issue until so ordered by the courts.
A most telling comment comes from Eric Reeves, a retired Coast Guard commander who was its 1993-1998 manager of ballast water inspections. He said there was a time in the 1990s when, "We would get together to talk to shipping officials about what the industry didn't like about our regulations and how we (the Coast Guard) were going to deal with it." He told Alexander: "It was like Dick Cheney discussing the nation's energy policy behind closed doors with oil tycoons."
Promotional blurbs on book covers often are mere P.R. fluff, but this from Reeves on Alexander's book is worthy of note:
"This is the definitive history of the subject. I fear that we have already lost our battle to protect the Great Lakes from invasive species, but I'll take solace from knowledge that Alexander's history of that lost battle gives us the opportunity to learn a few vital lessons from this tragedy of the commons."
It's a sad saga. The feds, after failing us, are stepping up to the plate. But this important book warns that the consequences may never be reversed.
The lock and big ore carriers are vital to the Michigan economy. The salties are important, but not as vital. Ban them if they can't come in clean.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow and U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, who thrust their shovels into the ground in Sault Ste. Marie last week for a project to build a new Soo Lock, should read Alexander's book, as well as a June 25 Navigation and Invasive Species report from Great Lakes United on improving environmental stewardship.
In release of the report, Dennis Schornack, an ex-aide to then-Gov. John Engler and former U.S. Chair of the International Joint Commission, said: "The damage invasive species have caused to the Great Lakes is astounding. But, what's most frustrating is that we still haven't closed the door."
George Weeks retired in 2006 after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features