Protecting Lake Michigan is a matter of environmental justice

Underserved and marginalized communities will now be a priority under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

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Lake Michigan near Belmont Harbor.

Lake Michigan is a national treasure, and it’s time to engage all communities in an effort to protect it, Sen. Dick Durbin writes.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Illinois has been blessed with Lake Michigan. And we will be judged on whether we leave it to our kids better than we found it.

In 2009, I worked with the Obama Administration to establish the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to provide the first funding dedicated specifically to the restoration of the Great Lakes. In the years since, the program has had a significant impact on our state, providing more than $270 million in federal funding for 279 projects in Illinois.

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You don’t have to look far for examples of the program’s success in Chicago or in the surrounding communities. Northerly Island has been cleaned up and turned into green space. North Point Marina’s beach can now be used for swimming. And we’ve funded the cleanup of toxic pollution, prevented the spread of invasive species, and invested in much needed habitat restoration.

Despite all the good work we put into this lake, we have more to do. Recently I was joined by Joel Brammeier — president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes — and State Rep. Kam Buckner — chair of the Lake Shore Caucus — to discuss something often overlooked in strategies to protect Lake Michigan: equity.

Communities of color and low-income communities along Lake Michigan have not been provided equitable resources to address restoration projects. These neighborhoods face some of the greatest challenges with pollution, contaminated sites, drinking and wastewater systems, water quality, and wetland and other habitat loss.

This is through no fault of their own. Many of the largest polluters choose these communities to dump their waste. It’s time to put a stop to it.

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I’ve asked the Environmental Protection Agency to prioritize low-income, historically marginalized, and underserved communities within the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Focusing on these communities and having community participation in the program will ensure the areas most impacted by pollution benefit from federal restoration investments.

This prioritization is long overdue. Reprioritizing the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is not only important for our communities here in Illinois, but it also would help align the program with President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative —a plan to deliver 40 percent of the overall benefits of climate investments to disadvantaged communities around the country.

This year, I launched an initiative called “Our Lake,” which will offer federal solutions to problems that Lake Michigan faces. By improving the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and ensuring environmental justice is at the forefront of our federal policies, we can make sure our kids and grandkids can enjoy this incredible lake as we have and do it the right way.

We have always considered Lake Michigan as a national treasure that needs to be protected. Now it is time to engage all of the communities that line its shores in a common effort to reach that goal.

Sen. Dick Durbin is the Senate Majority Whip and the senior senator from Illinois.

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