It seems fitting somehow that what may be the only congressional district that has faced oil spills, nuclear leaks, and threats from invasive species is the one held by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich.
Upton, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has represented his southwest Michigan district since 1987. And while he's held the chairman's gavel only since 2011, he fought his share of energy battles well before that, many of which he attributes to district concerns.
"[Local] issues drive my priorities in terms of what I care about," Upton said. Left unsaid is that his priorities tend to drive House policy-making on energy-related issues.
Upton cited one of his first acts in Congress, adding language to an oil-pollution bill to create a Great Lakes response team after witnessing a spill in a Michigan port. Years later, he said, when a pipeline rupture in a neighboring district threatened to send oil downriver into Lake Michigan, the resources were in place to deal with the crisis. "They had booms and they deployed them, and they were able to stop it from moving farther west," Upton said.
That spill, which dumped more than 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in July 2010, helped shape Upton's pipeline-safety legislation, authored with Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., and passed the next year. "It was overdue to do pipeline safety," Upton said. "We increased the standards dramatically on any oil and gas pipeline installed in the country."
While the spill happened in the next district over, its fallout reached the waterways in Upton's turf—but it's from far from the only local energy concern. The Palisades nuclear plant has been hit with frequent safety violations—including several leaks earlier this year—and was listed last year as one of the country's four worst-performing plants, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Upton said he is in constant communication with officials at the NRC, as well as staffers at Palisades and another local nuclear plant, to assess safety issues. He also mentioned the facility's dry cask storage of spent fuel, which some have called a safety issue due to the plant's proximity to Lake Michigan and the containers' vulnerability to earthquakes.
Again, Upton used that local concern to highlight a national issue, in this case his ongoing push to mandate nuclear-waste storage at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. "We have to find one safe place for this," Upton said. He said he met last week with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to discuss a number of energy issues, including nuclear-waste storage. "There's talk about an interim storage site," he said.
Meanwhile, Upton said he's keeping a close eye across Lake Michigan as Asian carp in the Illinois River threaten to make their way into the Great Lakes. The fast-breeding, heavy-eating fish have been deemed a "significant risk to the Great Lakes ecosystem" by the Environmental Protection Agency, and electric barriers built to keep the fish out aren't good enough, Upton said. "[Asian carp] will ruin a multibillion-dollar fishing industry," he said. "Once they're in, we're not going to get them out.… They've not developed a foolproof system [to keep them out]."
Last week, Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials held a training run on the St. Joseph River, one of the major waterways in Upton's district, to prepare for the possibility of dealing with Asian carp. Many think the river will be one of the first breeding grounds for the fish should they reach Lake Michigan. That threat, Upton said, has residents deeply concerned. One public meeting on the issue had people lined up to attend and there were complaints from constituents who couldn't attend due to timing.
Of course, Upton isn't exempt from more-common constituent concerns. "The issue that rings the phones more than any other is gas prices," he said. That makes for an easy segue into one of his top issues, approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. "It's certainly better than transporting [oil] by truck, cheaper and safer," he said. "Isn't it better to put it in a pipeline than it is in a ship or a truck or rail?"
While Upton helps frame federal energy policy in Washington, he says he's still taking his cues from back home. He referenced other issues, such as harbor dredging and an Indiana refinery's discharges into Lake Michigan, where local concerns have helped guide legislation. "I grew up on Lake Michigan," Upton said. "I know the importance of the Great Lakes."
This article appears in the October 21, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.