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Environment/Sustainability Wed Mar 26 2014

The Threats to Lake Michigan

lake michigan - photo by a. dobrowski
Photo by A. Dombrowski

Since the emergence of Asian carp in the Chicago River and other major bodies of water connected to Lake Michigan, there has been the worry over Asian carp getting in the lake.

Asian carp are native to China and almost sound like a fish seen in a cartoon. Asian carp can reportedly jump very high and have been known to hit boaters in the face, causing injury. The Asian carp can also grow to up to five feet long and weigh 100 lbs.

Asian carp happen to be a threat to the Great Lakes ecosystem due to its massive appetite for plankton. According to the Shedd Aquarium plankton is an essential part of the ecosystem in the Great Lakes. If the Asian carp consume massive quantities of plankton, that could result in lack of food for other aquatic species in those bodies of water, which could cause problems for the rest of the life forms in Lake Michigan.

Like quite a few invasive species in the Great Lakes region, the carp were brought in with a good intention. Carp were brought in to help control algae at farms in the southern United States. Due to flooding, the carp were able to spill over into the Mississippi River, travel north and end up in the rivers connected to the Mississippi River, according to the Shedd Aquarium.

If Asian carp were to move into the lake, they could cause irrevocable damage as they would likely consume the plankton in not just Lake Michigan, but also in the rest of the Great Lakes.

There is a very clear reason why Asian carp have been the focus of many discussions in recent years. But not all dangers to Lake Michigan take the form of a giant fish that jumps really high.

Sitting just over the Indiana border in Whiting is a BP refinery that seems massive as you sit on a train rolling through the small town. That particular corridor of Indiana is filled with depressing, gargantuan complexes of industry visible as one travels by train or a car on the Skyway. The most notable one is the United States Steel plant in Gary.

If you travel through Whiting, you will notice that it seems hazy on any given day, and the fires from the refinery make a dreary day seem even more intense. This refinery is one of the biggest polluters of Lake Michigan, according to the Tribune.

To the unknowing person, oil refineries that pollute waters might seem like something you would find in Texas, not 20 miles outside of Chicago. But there it sits on the banks of Lake Michigan.

The BP refinery is in the news now due to an oil spill that occurred on Monday afternoon. The oil spill was contained and cleaned up by BP and it appears there weren't any noticeable effects on the lake.

One of the main reasons why people should be concerned about this oil spill is that Lake Michigan provides drinking water for residents in Chicago and the suburbs, as well as to communities elsewhere on the lake. There's also the aquatic life residing in Lake Michigan and people enjoying the beaches in the summer. There is even a national park, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, located on Lake Michigan.

While the oil spill that occurred on Monday seems to have been fairly minor, the problem is it still occurred. This came after BP did a massive expansion of the refinery so it could handle oil from Canadian tar sands. What's troubling about this incident is it seems as though BP is unsure how the spill occurred.

With the current lack of answers about the oil spill, there is a good reason to be worried about the Whiting refinery. After all, it is a sprawling oil refinery that sits on Lake Michigan. It has a long history of pollution in the area so its location is a bit concerning. There is every reason for people in Chicago to be concerned this could happen again, although one can hope BP learns from this incident and puts checks in place to prevent a spill from happening again.

Although an oil spill is much different from Asian carp, it's still something that can harm Lake Michigan. This oil spill is a warning of the potential dangers of having a massive refinery sitting on one of the Great Lakes. It has gotten the attention of Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. Mark Kirk, as well as Mayor Rahm Emanuel. If something is actually done as a response to these politicians, perhaps people won't have to worry about something like this happening again.

Meanwhile, Asian carp DNA was found in Sturgeon Bay, Wisc. in Nov. 2013. That is also a warning, even though it might not mean an actual fish was in Lake Michigan. (Asian carp have been found in Lake Erie.) But it could mean the possibility of carp getting to Lake Michigan is significant.

There are environmental problems beyond having sustainable building designs or encouraging people to ride more bikes and Asian carp and the Whiting refinery are among them. If politicians can look at the warning signs and actually do something about Asian carp and the refinery, then the ecosystem of Lake Michigan will continue to thrive.


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