President Trump won the 2016 election in several Great Lakes states, but his administration is assaulting Great Lakes protection and restoration.
Slashing funding for the sensible Great Lakes Restoration Initiative from $300 million annually to $0. Potentially closing the U.S. Enviromental Protection Agency’s Region 5 office in Chicago, which includes the Great Lakes National Program Office, and transferring its staff to Kansas. Rolling back Clean Water Act standards that protect safe, clean drinking water.
What are they thinking? This is a headscratcher, criticized by both Republican and Democratic leaders.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt says he wants to get “back to basics.” What could be more basic than protecting the Great Lakes?
The Great Lakes are a global gem. They contain the planet’s largest fresh water supply (21 percent), provide drinking water for 42 million people, provide a rich aquatic habitat and ecosystem, support a $7 billion annual fishing industry, and offer lakefront and recreational opportunities for millions of people. Lake Michigan helps make Chicago a great place to live, work and visit.
The Great Lakes are our great natural treasure. Military analysts say future wars will be fought over fresh water. Chicagoans, Cheeseheads, Hoosiers, Michiganders, Minnesotans and Ohioans all recognize this remarkable liquid gold. We can’t afford to spoil it. Why put this at risk?
First, the Trump administration’s proposed FY 2018 budget apparently would eliminate funding for the successful Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Republicans including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, have joined with Illinois’ two Democratic senators, Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel urging President Donald Trump to reverse course.
They understand voters’ strong support for the Great Lakes.
The short stopgap FY 2017 budget approved by Congress continues this Great Lakes program at the full $300 million. The Trump administration’s FY 2018 budget, which starts on Oct. 1, does not.
This is a practical program that has supported 3,000 projects to keep the lakes clean, preserve shorelines, restore wetlands and protect safe clean drinking water. For example:
- Waukegan Harbor, once “the world’s largest PCB mess,” is now cleaner and ready for better economic and recreational use after EPA invested funds to properly dredge and dispose the heavily contaminated sediments.
- In Northwest Indiana, 1.5 million cubic yards of contaminated river bottom will be removed from the Grand Calumet River and 900 acres of habitat restored so that great blue heron, egrets and fishermen can safely ply the wetlands, river and Lake Michigan.
- EPA scientists crisscross the lakes in the Lake Guardian and the Mudpuppy research vessels, gathering water and air quality monitoring data essential to determining safe drinking water supplies and potential health risks that warrant beach closures.
Second, the Trump administration’s rumored plans to close the EPA’s regional office in Chicago, which oversees the largest freshwater body in the world, are tone deaf and foolish. The EPA’s national Great Lakes Program and experienced staff are in Chicago. The reported plan would transfer staff to the EPA’s regional office in Lenexa, Kansas as the new center for EPA’s Great Lakes protection work and team. Really.
When the Enbridge pipeline broke and spilled oil into the Kalamazoo River, would the EPA’s emergency team have responded more quickly from Lenexa, Kansas than from Chicago? Will Kansas-based staff better deal with algae blooms in Lake Erie and Lake Michigan, and contaminated drinking water in East Chicago, Flint and Toledo?
The Trump administration suggests that consolidating Chicago’s regional office into Kansas’ regional office will save some coin. That’s penny-wise and pound foolish, just like the flawed choice to seek short-term cost savings that resulted in the Flint contaminated water tragedy.
Third, Pruitt is rushing to roll back clean water standards that protect safe drinking water and preserve fish and wildlife habitat. The Environmental Law & Policy Center commissioned 12 focus groups of Trump voters in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. While they didn’t like regulatory paperwork, these voters solidly support regulations to protect safe clean water as common sense.
They understand that pollution upstream or next door can contaminate their drinking water. They like swimming in clean lakes and enjoy playing on nice beaches. Some remember when raw industrial sewage polluted our lakes before the Clean Water Act was passed and implemented. They didn’t vote for a rollback.
Good policy is good politics. This shortsighted attack on the Great Lakes and safe clean drinking water is bad policy. The public and most political leaders know better. The battle for Great Lakes protection is well worth fighting and winning, but this battle shouldn’t have to be fought. President Trump, it’s time to step back and reconsider.
Howard A. Learner is the executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, a Midwest-based public interest organization.
Mary Gade served as the U.S. EPA Region 5 administrator in 2006 – 2008 and Great Lakes National Program Manager.