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Future of the Great Lakes: How we must act to keep them clean from invasive species and contaminants

The Great Lakes form the largest group of freshwater lakes on the planet, containing 21 percent of the world's surface fresh water by volume. As a Duluthian and the senator who has the largest port on the Great Lakes in my district, it was my honor to attend the Great Lakes Legislative Caucus in Buffalo, N.Y., representing Lake Superior and Minnesota. The caucus is comprised of legislators and members of parliament from all states and provinces bordering the Great Lakes. Caring for these vast bodies of water is something every attendee at this gathering had in common. The health of Lake Superior and the Great Lakes as a whole has long been a passion and a priority of mine.

At this gathering we had a number of discussions about critical problems facing the Great Lakes. The first problem we discussed was all too familiar: how to deal with invasive species, particularly those species already present in the Mississippi and Illinois river systems and how to block the spread into Lake Michigan and the rest of the Great Lakes. Invasive carp in particular are a significant problem in the Mississippi River and surrounding tributaries. They cause serious damage to native fish populations in waters they infest. According to the National Park Service, carp are also thought to lower water quality, which could kill off other sensitive organisms.

Our conversations at the meeting in Buffalo also focused on a new topic: the increasing pressure to ship oil on the lakes. New pipelines are controversial and rail-line backups cause significant concerns as well. A map created by the Wall Street Journal shows the volume of crude oil trains traveling across the country. There is a large red swath running straight across Minnesota showing more than 25 oil trains traveling through our state every week. This fact of life has quickly changed the lives of many Minnesotans, including putting added pressures on farmers trying to ship commodities to market. First responders lack the adequate training for an oil emergency, but will respond all the same.

These discussions about oil safety reminded me of the bill I authored this past session to provide our local responders, many of whom are volunteers, the training necessary to properly handle an oil train emergency. The bill would have added this type of training to Lake Superior College's existing Emergency Response Training Center (ERTC) programming. The bill calls for $1.13 million to help equip the program with simulators and training for firefighters, first responders and related local personnel, specifically related to emergency responses to accidents from transportation of hazardous materials by rail and pipeline. Ensuring safety measures are in place and safety responders have the training needed to address problems when they happen is an obligation our state has to those who will be asked to rush to the scene of a future emergency.

Minnesota carries a huge burden from the shipment of North Dakota crude through our state and yet doesn't reap much benefit. If these oil trains are an inevitable part of our state's future, having the right discussions about protecting our people and our towns should be a part of the 2016 legislative session.

Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, represents District 7 in the Minnesota Senate.

Roger Reinert

Roger Reinert is a Duluth resident.