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Close locks — create jobs?!?

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We’ve been told by politicians, lobbyists, and editorialists that closing the O’Brien and Chicago locks would be devastating to the local economy.   Governor Quinn has said it would be tantamount to “strangling our economy.”

Now a new analysis (from Michigan) argues that closing the locks would lead to an increase in local employment.

The study was submited as part of Michigan’s motion on Thursday asking the Supreme Court to reconsider a preliminary injunction to close locks in order to keep Asian carp out of Lake Michigan.  The motion is based on the revelation that the Army Corps of Engineers had information that carp DNA had been detected for the first time in Lake Michigan – but didn’t release it until just after the Supreme Court dismissed an earlier motion.

It comes as three Midwest governors plan to meet with federal officials at the White House on Monday, with a congressional hearing on the issue scheduled for Tuesday.

Environment Illinois [2] is calling on Governor Quinn [3] to embrace a temporary closing of the locks and make public contingency plans for action if carp continue to advance. “We need to know that all options are on the table and that science is guiding the decision-making process, funding is available and agencies are being coordinated — and that the shipping industry is not the only voice being heard,” said Max Muller of EI.

The group is part of the Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition [4], which has issued a comprehensive plan [5] for the crisis.

Joel Brammeier of the Great Lakes Alliance [6] applauded the growing attention to the issue, but told the Circle of Blue’s Water News [7] that it’s not yet clear whether “the agencies are willing to go to the mat and make stopping Asian carp priority one in both word and deed.”

Estimates by Illinois and the Army Corps of Engineers of the economic costs of closing the O’Brien and Chicago locks are “seriously exaggerated,” said John C. Taylor, a professor of Wayne State University and director of its supply chain management program.

His study is discussed and linked by Henry Henderson of the National Resources Defense Council on his Huffington Post [8] blog.

A key error is the Army Corps’ assumption that barge cargo would be shifted to truck or rail from its starting point, Taylor writes.  He argues that the cost advantages of barge traffic mean such cargo would still go by water, but would be shifted to other modes of transportation at new transloading terminals that would be needed downstream of closed locks.

While the Army Corps estimates additional costs for the 7 million tons of cargo that pass through the two locks each year at $27 a ton, Taylor pegs it at $10 or less.  That reflects the difference between a 400-mile truck ride from New Orleans and a 7- or 12-mile route from the O’Brien Lock and a nearby customer.

There would be some loss of barge jobs, but in most cases employment would move from areas where navigation is reduced to areas where it continues, he says; overall, he expects additional  transportation and cargo-handling jobs — and a net increase in employment.

Most of the $70 million in increased costs that Taylor projects would go to wages for truck drivers and other new workers, he said.

The assertion in court filings by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce and the American Waterways Operators that transloading is not feasible “flies in the face” of the realities of the industry, Taylor said.  “Almost everything is transloaded in some manner” – including a large percentage of cargo now carried on barges on Chicago waterways.

The assertion is belied every day by long lines of trucks outside Calumet River terminals, Taylor said.

Whatever the outcome of the Asian carp crisis, the scientific consensus is that it’s time to separate the two great water basins, the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River,  joined a hundred years ago by the Chicago Diversion.   Asian carp is not the first invasive species to threaten the two ecosystems and it won’t be the last, and the connection puts both ecosystems at peril.

Forward-looking leadership with the courage to plan responsibly would minimize economic dislocation.  Denial, resistance, and foot-dragging will ultimately make things harder.