Trump Proposal To Gut Great Lakes Funding Could Allow Pollution To Flourish

It wasn't so long ago that the waters were so foul they could actually catch fire.

DETROIT ― The Trump administration’s reported proposal to slash Environmental Protection Agency funding could spell major problems for the Great Lakes.

President Donald Trump’s administration is looking to chop 25 percent from the agency’s budget. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative would see the biggest funding cut, to just $10 million in fiscal 2018 from its nearly $300 million allocation this year ― a 97 percent reduction, according to The Oregonian, which first reported details on funding proposals for several dozen programs last week. Other parts of the EPA budget would roll back regulatory work aimed at curbing climate change.

The Great Lakes initiative started in 2010 and has directed more than $2 billion toward protecting the lakes, the largest surface freshwater source in the world. The EPA partners with more than a dozen other federal agencies and provides local grants for projects like controlling invasive species and managing watersheds to minimize pollution.

A focus is on restoring so-called areas of concern that have been damaged by decades of industrial pollution. The EPA spent $90 million addressing areas of concern last year. Several of the areas have improved enough to be taken off the list since the restoration initiative began in 2010.

The EPA budget cuts were included in an internal recommendation from the Office of Management and Budget that the National Association of Clean Air Agencies obtained and shared with The Oregonian. The association confirmed the figures to The Huffington Post. The EPA can still contest the draft cuts, and Congress ultimately approves a final budget. But the proposed massive reduction concerns researchers in the Great Lakes region.

“If something happens to the EPA and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, it’s going to be public health that suffers,” said Bradley Cardinale, a University of Michigan ecologist. “This is going to result in a lot of job loss, a lot of pollution and reverting us back to many of the problems we had when Lake Erie once caught on fire because it was so polluted.”

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration receives funding through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, including money for NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The lab monitors harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie, which in 2014 were so severe that more than 400,000 people in the Toledo, Ohio, area were without drinking water for several days.

Lake Erie's 2014 harmful algae bloom, seen here at Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon, Ohio, left 400,000 people without drinking water.
Lake Erie's 2014 harmful algae bloom, seen here at Maumee Bay State Park in Oregon, Ohio, left 400,000 people without drinking water.
The Washington Post via Getty Images

Cardinale, who partners with the NOAA lab, said he fears the facility could be shut down if significant budget cuts are imposed.

NOAA did not return a request for comment. The EPA said in an email that it wasn’t commenting at this point in the process.

Other scientists echoed Cardinale’s concerns.

“The loss of Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding would be devastating to the health of the Great Lakes,” said Guy Meadows, director of the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University, which has received seven Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants totaling $2.2 million.

Democrats and Republicans who represent the Great Lakes region also deplored the proposed cuts.

Emily Benavides, spokeswoman for Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), pointed to Congress’ rejection of former President Barack Obama’s 2015 plan to cut $50 million from the Great Lakes restoration funding.

“This initiative has been a successful tool in our efforts to help protect and restore Lake Erie, and Rob will continue to fight for it just as he did when the Obama administration proposed cuts to the program,” Benavides said in an email.

“These reports are alarming,” Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) said in a statement. “I will be fighting hard alongside colleagues on both sides of the aisle so we can turn this around and make sure our Great Lakes are properly protected.”

Cardinale said his chief concern is the impact to the local economy.

“The first thing I’m worried about is people, and the single biggest concern is going to be job loss,” Cardinale said. “This is going to extend way beyond the 3,000 jobs and families that are going to be affected at EPA.”

About 1.5 million jobs were tied to the Great Lakes in 2009, according to a report from Michigan Sea Grant, including more than 200,000 tourism-related positions. That industry could falter if restoration is halted and pollution worsens, Cardinale said.

“Nobody likes to visit places that are polluted and disgusting,” he said.

The Great Lakes account for 20 percent of the world’s fresh water and provide drinking water to 40 million people.

Other EPA programs that could be drastically cut or shuttered altogether target the Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Initiatives designed to protect public health also are on the chopping block.

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