What a Biden Administration may mean for birds

Cleaner water for shorebirds in places like northwest Indiana

Purple Sandpipers on the Great Lakes are a special find. A few of these plump Arctic shorebirds occasionally end up on Lake Michigan, wanderers from points east. One of those Lake Michigan destinations is Park 566 on Chicago’s South Side. Another is near Burns Harbor, Ind., hard by Arcelor Mittal’s steelmaking facility, a 1,986-acre site that’s the manufacturer’s second largest U.S. plant.

This is where the story takes an unfortunate turn. In 2019, Arcelor accidentally discharged cyanide into the Little Calumet River, killing 3,000 fish. The mouth of the Little Calumet happens to be right where, a few months later, a Purple Sandpiper showed up to the joy of birders from all over the region. As far as we know, the Purple Sandpiper was OK despite ingesting invertebrates from those same waters as the cyanide spill. Same with the many other shorebirds, Sanderlings, Spotted Sandpipers and Baird’s Sandpipers to name a few, that frequent the shoreline.

That brings us to the defeat of Donald Trump, whose EPA had rolled back enforcement against polluters like Arcelor. The Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) and Hoosier Environmental Council filed suit in December of last year against Arcelor Mittal for its violations of the Clean Water Act and continued pollution of the Little Calumet. ELPC has shown how EPA enforcement decreased under the Trump Administration in Region 5, which includes Illinois and Indiana.

What might change in the Biden Administration? The President-elect’s campaign platform included a plank devoted to increased enforcement against serial polluters. Increased enforcement and increased fines may mean fewer spills facing ecosystems like that of Burns Harbor.

The bigger question may be what a Biden Administration may mean for birds generally, given the many threats of climate change, habitat loss, pesticides and more. One can walk many miles of Great Lakes shoreline on many a winter day and never see a Purple Sandpiper. When one delights us with its presence, will it face the threats we’ve seen throughout the past four years? Or will it be welcomed with clean water and all the protections available under the law?