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Boatloads of Trouble

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MSU alumnus Jeff Alexander's newest book, Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway, will be released in June. Photograph courtesy of the Michigan State University Press.

A new book reveals the dirty side of an engineering marvel

By Andrew McGlashen
Spring 2009
There are brief moments of gothic ghastliness in Jeff Alexander’s new book: Eel-like sea lampreys repeatedly strike and latch onto a teenage girl trying to swim across a choppy Lake Ontario at night. A 50-foot-wide band of dead fish lines a 40-mile stretch of Lake Michigan’s shore. Loons poisoned with botulism can’t hold their heads out of the water, and drown.
But while those images might give readers the willies, the book’s larger tale of the federal government’s failure to keep invasive species out of the Great Lakes will make them downright sick.
Michigan State University Press will publish Pandora’s Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway in June, marking the 50th anniversary of the Seaway’s dedication.
Alexander, an MSU alumnus and former environment reporter for the Muskegon Chronicle, said when he decided to write a book explaining how invasive species entered the lakes and played havoc with their ecosystems, his hunch was that the global shipping industry was most to blame.
“But my research turned my whole hypothesis on its head,” he said in a phone interview.
When the Seaway opened, it allowed oceangoing ships to travel 2,340 miles inland from the Atlantic to Duluth, Minn., and other freshwater ports by passing through a series of locks, canals and dams. It meant freighters could haul Minnesota grain, Upper Michigan iron and Rust Belt autos eastward at a fraction of the cost to move them by train.
But while Alexander clearly appreciates its magnitude and ingenuity, Pandora’s Locks is no rhapsody to the Seaway. As he writes in its preface, the book tells “the story of how ineffectual regulatory agencies, ignorant politicians, and an intransigent shipping industry allowed the insidious byproducts of ocean shipping to eviscerate and reconfigure the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem.”
Residents of the Great Lakes region have been bombarded in recent years with reports of harmful invasive species entering the lakes. Zebra mussels, alewives, sea lampreys, round gobies — though most of us never see these pests, their names are familiar. They swim or slither into newspapers one at a time, with apparently little in common.
In Pandora’s Locks, though, we see how the lakes’ many invaders — there are at least 183 — are each notes in the same sad song. We learn how one species can make conditions ripe for other menaces. For instance, the zebra and quagga mussels that were discovered in the lakes in the 1980s have caused recent bird die-offs, and caused massive algae blooms that clogged the intake pipes used for cooling nuclear power plants, forcing emergency shutdowns. By devastating predator species like lake trout, lampreys caused an explosion of alewives in the early 1960s. It’s all related, Alexander said, and it’s all troubling.
And the allusion to Pandora’s box is apt, for like the evils unleashed in the Greek myth, exotics that take hold in the lakes will likely never be contained.
“Once invasive species are here, they’re usually here to stay,” Alexander said. “The worst actors, like zebra mussels and quagga mussels — there’s nothing we can do to control those.”
In a flourish of cruel irony on this portrait of biological disaster, we learn engineers failed to account for the increasing size of freighters, and built the Seaway to outdated dimensions. This costly goof meant most oceangoing ships were soon too large to fit through the locks and canals, limiting traffic mostly to trade between freshwater ports. “The Seaway was essentially obsolete the day it opened,” Alexander writes.
But the book’s sharpest sting lies in its depiction of governmental negligence.
It’s no secret that many invasive species enter the lakes through the ballast water used to stabilize ships. Yet, as we see in the book, the laws meant to rid ballast tanks of foreign species are full of loopholes big enough to sail a ship through, and responsibility for regulating ballast water is avoided like the plague.
The Environmental Protection Agency passes the job of protecting the region’s environment to the Coast Guard, an agency whose coziness with the shipping industry is obvious; when Alexander visits the Coast Guard’s regional office in Massena, N.Y., he finds they share a building with the agency that owns and operates the Seaway. Regulator and regulated even hold (and publicize!) an annual “Maritime Community Day,” during which industry representatives can share cocktails and discuss regulation with government officials.
The news media has failed to report that angle of the invasives story, according to Alexander.
“No one has really probed deeply into that relationship between the Coast Guard and the shipping industry,” he said. “The Coast Guard still, to this day, hasn’t even proposed ballast water treatment standards. It just defies reason.”
Alexander is himself something of an exotic species, though of a benign sort. A Los Angeles native, he came to MSU in 1980 and remained in the state, working for papers in Marshall and Kalamazoo, and in the Booth newspaper chain’s Lansing bureau, before taking up the environment beat for the Chronicle.
He made his first foray into book publishing in 2006 with The Muskegon: The Majesty and Tragedy of Michigan’s Rarest River, which was named a Michigan Notable Book by the state’s Department of History, Arts and Libraries.
“The first book is by far the hardest,” he said, but the second was no walk in the park. “I tell people that writing a book is like having a child. It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but it’s also the most rewarding. The beauty of it is that it gives you a chance to really write.”
Alexander said it took a drawer-full of essays by some masters of environmental writing to keep him from throwing in the towel.
“There were times when I wanted to chuck the whole thing,” he said. Instead he took solace from an essay in which John McPhee said he never had any confidence when he started writing a book. He also read Annie Dillard, who claimed that a writer should care so deeply for their subject that they’d write a book about it even if nobody would read it.
So why does a transplanted Angeleno care enough about the Great Lakes to spend 18 months writing a book about them?
“I come from L.A., which is basically an irrigated desert,” he said. “When I came here, I just couldn’t believe the size of the lakes. I just think it’s such an incredible gift to live by them.”
Andrew McGlashen is a second-year master’s student in environmental journalism at MSU. This is his third appearance in EJ. Contact him at amcglashen@gmail.com.

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