In his first "Lake Michigan Report Card," Sen. Mark Kirk on Wednesday said he's most concerned about the amount of sewage being dumped into the Great Lakes and called upon the United States Congress to completely ban the practice.
"This is the crown jewel of the Midwest ecosystem, the source of drinking water for over 30 million Americans, and we should envision policies which make this ecosystem healthier and healthier over time," Kirk said at the Shedd Aquarium, with a sparkling Chicago harbor and skyline providing a fitting backdrop.
Still, the "C" grade he gave for sewage pollution wasn't the worst of the six criteria he outlined Tuesday. Overall beach quality and lake water levels both earned "D" grades.
Overall, he gave Lake Michigan an average grade: a "C."
"These grades are, in my intention, a guide as the new co-chairman of the Great Lakes Caucus in the Senate for where we should go as a federal government," he said.
Roughly 24 billion gallons of sewage -- 6.5 billion of it from the Chicago area -- was dumped into the Great Lakes last year, said Kirk.
He said Congress should adopt the Great Lakes Water Protection Act, which he and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin co-sponsored. The bill would set a federal date to ban all sewage dumping and continue bipartisan efforts to disinfect the Chicago River, he said.
Kirk's nearly failing sub-grade for beach water quality mimics a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The 52 Chicago-area beaches saw 579 beach closures or contamination advisories within the last year, he said.
Water levels in Lake Michigan have declined three feet in the last 25 years, the senator said. The decline increases dredging costs and makes it more difficult to maintain harbors. Kirk urged passage of the Harbor Maintenance Act.
A sub-grade for mercury levels in the Great Lakes wasn't provided. Kirk said that while there's data to show that levels are improving, he said that data was "very spotty" and inconclusive. He called upon the Environmental Protection Agency to issue an annual report.
The fight against invasive species, particularly Asian Carp, earned a "C." Kirk said there's eDNA evidence of the fish about 52 nautical miles from the lake and said the Army Corps or Engineers should increase the voltage on the barriers aimed to keep the fish out.
"We understand voltage in Chicagoland. Anybody who takes the 'L' knows [that you shouldn't] touch the third rail. Some Coast Guard bureaucrats said, 'Well, we're concerned that if anybody stood on their boat and touched the wall in the barrier, they might get a shock,' and I would just say a simple sign saying 'This is just like the third rail on the 'L', don't touch it,' is something very appropriate," said Kirk.
The one brighter spot on the report card was the "B" sub-grade given to Superfund sites. Of the 43 Superfund sites around the Great Lake, Kirk called out the promising work being done by the EPA in the Waukegan Harbor, which was contaminated by the now-defunct Outboard Marine Corporation. That company dumped large amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the harbor.