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Attempt to weaken shipping regulations would be a disaster for the Great Lakes

So, a congressman from California thinks he knows how best to keep invasive species out of the Great Lakes, bordered by eight states that are home to millions of Americans and nowhere close to California. Perhaps he’d like it if representatives from those states wrote laws that made oil spills easier to accomplish along the California coast.

It’s a fair equivalency as Rep. Duncan Hunter, D-Calif., sneaked a provision into a defense spending bill that weakens protection against invasive species entering the Great Lakes, there to wreak ecological havoc on one of the most significant watersheds anywhere on the globe.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes that the Great Lakes ecosystem has already been “severely damaged” by more than 180 invasive or nonnative species. These species degrade habitat, out-compete native species and short-circuit the interconnection of food chains.

Invasive species hurt the economy by damaging critical industries such as fisheries, agriculture and tourism. And they can harm human health. Lake Erie is Buffalo’s single greatest resource. It needs to be protected, both from invasive species and indifferent congressmen. The simple fact is that prevention is far less difficult and costly than controlling an established species.

Hunter acted at the behest of the shipping industry, which finds the regulations it must deal with too onerous and confusing. His outrage was disproportionate to his distance from the lakes that would suffer the consequences of his fawning devotion to this powerful and wealthy industry.

The issue is which agency regulates the matter of ballast water carried in ships and sometimes discharged with unwanted intruders such as zebra mussels, Asian carp and sea lamprey. Both the Environmental Protection Agency and Coast Guard have been given that authority, though the EPA’s regulations are much tougher.

Guess whose Hunter favors?

The House passed this measure, likely unaware that Hunter had concealed it within the military spending bill. Among those voting for it was Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, who has otherwise supported measures aimed at cleaning the Great Lakes.

Indeed, it is no surprise that the industry had to go all the way to California to find a sponsor willing to slide this destructive measure into the military bill. Representatives of Great Lakes states know it would spell disaster to their areas and possibly to their political careers.

“The National Defense Authorization Act is supposed to be about protecting the homeland, not welcoming invasive species to our waters,” said Rebecca Riley, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The good news is that, with Hunter’s reckless subterfuge exposed, this measure is unlikely to be approved by the Senate.

President Obama has also made clear that he opposes this sneak attack on the Great Lakes. Indeed, Obama has been the driving force behind the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. With his Chicago roots, he well understands the issues that are at stake, both environmentally and economically.

New York borders two of the five Great Lakes and has a special interest in protecting them. Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand need to work to ensure that this measure doesn’t become the lakes’ latest and potentially most damaging invader.