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Acting U.S. EPA administrator wants to keep Great Lakes restoration program

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Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler smiles as he is introduced to speak to EPA staff July 11 in Washington.

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The $300 million-a-year Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is one Obama-era program that will survive the Trump Administration if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new acting administrator, Andrew Wheeler, gets his way.

And, from Mr. Wheeler’s perspective, Chesapeake Bay’s highly aggressive cleanup strategy — a strategy that mirrors the sort of regulations some U.S. EPA critics and others want to see implemented for western Lake Erie — has been a success.

But while Mr. Wheeler agreed the Chesapeake Bay offers solid lessons for western Lake Erie, he would not comment on a pending lawsuit seeking similar environmental protections here, one which seeks to have this area ultimately placed under what’s known as a total maximum daily load program, or TMDL.

Madeline Fleisher, the plaintiff’s lead attorney in that case, welcomed Mr. Wheeler’s observation that Chesapeake Bay water quality improved after that region’s TMDL went into effect a few years ago.

“That's exactly our view. The Chesapeake Bay TMDL is a great example of how the Clean Water Act can improve water quality,” Ms. Fleisher, a Columbus-based attorney for the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said. “We'd like to get on the same trajectory here. It highlights how absurd it is that Ohio is ignoring this tool and the U.S. EPA is letting them.”

RELATED: Lake Erie Foundation seeks to join landmark lawsuit

Mike Ferner, Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie founder and coordinator, agreed.

“One lesson they finally learned from the Chesapeake Bay is that voluntary measures don't work,” Mr. Ferner said, adding that he looks forward to mandatory controls on agricultural practices. He cautioned, though, that any future TMDL in this area needs to be specific to soil here - not a “wholesale adoption” of the Chesapeake Bay program - because of northwest Ohio’s swampy legacy and subsurface drainage system.

Mr. Wheeler’s agency is being sued in federal court by the ELPC and ACLE. Those two groups claim the agency has violated the federal Clean Water Act by not insisting that its state partner, the Ohio EPA, develop a TMDL program for the western Lake Erie watershed.

By far the most site-specific, complex, and costly of all EPA cleanup strategies, a TMDL is used to set limits for how much pollution a river, lake, stream, or other type of ecosystem can reasonably withstand. It differs based on location, size, soil, and other factors — but the strategy often comes back to the concentration of runoff from area farms.

Mr. Wheeler, during a telephone interview with The Blade Friday, followed long-established agency procedure by declining comment on the case now before Senior Judge James Carr.

The case’s next hearing is Tuesday, and Judge Carr on Friday granted legal standing to the cities of Toledo and Oregon to assist the plaintiffs. He did the same for two other groups that have asked to help, the Lake Erie Foundation and Guardians of Grand Lake St. Marys.

The U.S. EPA’s goal is to provide states more flexibility in addressing environmental concerns, Mr. Wheeler said.

“We don't want to prescribe to everybody what to do. We want to encourage innovation,” he said.

But he said the Trump Administration still prefers “free-market, voluntary” incentives for better farming practices whenever possible.

“We are looking at how the Chesapeake Bay is improving,” Mr. Wheeler said. “We are looking for lessons learned that can be applied to other areas.”

Mr. Wheeler gave his phone interview to The Blade between site visits in southeast Michigan. He began his day by touring a site in Monroe County’s Point Mouille that has benefited from the GLRI, saying he was impressed by what he saw. He went there with U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R., Tipton, MIch.), who in 2010 credited the Tea Party for helping him get elected to Congress.

His second stop was at Horkey Farms near Dundee, where he spoke with Michigan Farm Bureau representatives. His visit to the area ended at the U.S. EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Laboratory in Ann Arbor.

The acting U.S. EPA administrator is a former coal industry lobbyist who said he gained an appreciation for the Great Lakes and particularly Lake Erie earlier in his career, when he was a staffer for the late U.S. Sen. and former Ohio Gov. George Voinovich (R., Cleveland).

While Mr. Trump’s administration is proud to have rolled back some environmental laws it deems too onerous on business, Mr. Wheeler said there is high value placed on the lakes.

“The President is committed to the Great Lakes,” Mr. Wheeler said. “The overall goals of improving the quality of the Great Lakes is a priority to the administration. We will spend all of the funds that Congress gives us [for them].”

Mr. Wheeler told The Blade the GLRI obviously has strong support from Congress. He predicted that the Trump administration’s annual efforts to eliminate or at least gut the program by more than 90 percent are a thing of the past, given its congressional support from both parties.

“What we're doing is what Congress gives us. We think it is an important program,” Mr. Wheeler said. “I think Congress fully supports the program and will fully fund it going forward.”

Congress has restored the program to its full $300 million each year the Trump Administration has tried to gut it.

The Obama administration began the GLRI in 2009 as a new funding mechanism for cleaning up polluted Great Lakes harbors while also making other environmental improvements to the world’s largest source of fresh surface water.

The program is rooted in the most comprehensive Great Lakes needs inventory undertaken in the region’s history by former President George W. Bush’s administration. Released in 2005 after more than a year of research, it identified more than $23 billion of work but was never funded. The Bush administration, at the time, cited expenses from the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina as reasons.

During his 2008 campaign, former President Barack Obama pledged to start funding it.

Mr. Wheeler said the current administration is trying to improve tap water by leveraging $5 billion in grant money, hoping it will raise $11 billion for improvements at water-treatment plants nationally over the next year.

Mr. Wheeler also said the agency is putting a lot of work into updating its lead and copper rule over the next year, in hopes of avoiding disasters similar to what Flint, Mich., has experienced.

“Not everyone understands where the lead pipes are in their communities,” he said. “We're taking the lead drinking water issue very seriously and regardless where people live.”

Mr. Wheeler served as the agency’s deputy administrator for less than three months before Mr. Trump appointed him to replace embattled U.S. EPA chief Scott Pruitt on July 5. Mr. Pruitt resigned amid controversy over his travel and other expenses.

Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079, or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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