Mark Kirk, Great Lakes Defender?

Ever since he joined the effort to stop BP’s Whiting Refinery from dumping more sludge into Lake Michigan, Mark Kirk has tried to make “defender of the Great Lakes” part of his political identity.

He’s been emphasizing his Great Lakes advocacy even more since BP spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico; it gives him the opportunity to point out that he knew BP stood for Big Polluter all the way back in 2007.

Kirk opened his press conference on Tuesday (yes, he’s giving press conferences now), by talking for over 10 minutes about the Great Lakes. He began by suggesting that Chicago needs to clean up its act, too. Kirk quoted a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article which pointed out that Chicago is the only Great Lakes metropolis that releases sewage without fully disinfecting it. The article, which accused Chicago of treating Lake Michigan “like a giant toilet tank,” pointed out that Milwaukee’s water discharge averages 29 fecal colony forming units per 100 milliliters; in Chicago, it’s 12,279, because the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District convinced state regulators that its drainage canals weren’t meant for swimming or fishing.

“I agree with Gov. Quinn that in the end, we should fully disinfect our sewage water,” Kirk said. “That’s not the case now.”

Last year, Kirk co-sponsored a bill with Rep. Dan Lipinski that would impose large fines on any community that dumps sewage into the lakes. The money would be used to fund projects that capture overflow water. For example, Kirk believes that by expanding its Deep Tunnel, Chicago can stop all rainy-day overflows into the lake by 2020.

“In the long run, if we have a policy of utterly pristine returns, that’s an acceptable 21st standard,” he said.

That’s a good goal. So is Kirk’s desire to “build a strong bipartisan coalition in Congress to defend the Great Lakes.” But Kirk still has a Chicago-centric view of the Lakes. He sees them simply as a reservoir that provides drinking water to 40 million people, rather than an ecosystem. The Journal-Sentinel article reflected the other Great Lakes’ states resentment of Chicago’s use of Lake Michigan, and advanced arguments for closing Illinois’ network of canals linking the Great Lakes system to the Mississippi system. That would keep out Asian carp and other invasive species. Kirk’s opponent, Alexi Giannoulias, has proposed re-reversing the Chicago River, a first step in that separation. But Kirk opposes that idea.

“How are you going to ensure that the Chicago River, where we’ve been dumping sewage for decades, is not a threat to the drinking water supply?” he asked.

Last week, Sen. Dick Durbin joined Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan in introducing a bill which would require the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an 18-month study on severing the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. It was a bold step for an Illinois politician. If Kirk really wants to defend the Great Lakes, he should speak out for that bill, too.

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