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Feds to focus on 9 polluted harbors for accelerated cleanups under plan to restore Great Lakes

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The sun sets over the Mackinac Bridge and the Mackinac Straits as seen from Lake Huron.

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DETROIT-- Nine river mouths and harbors contaminated with industrial toxins will be targeted for accelerated cleanups under an Obama administration program to deal with festering problems in the Great Lakes, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson said Wednesday.

With long-term funding prospects uncertain as Congress struggles to reduce the budget deficit, Jackson said the government will reorder its spending priorities for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, for which $775 million has been spent during the past two years.

In addition to fast-tracking work on heavily polluted sites, government agencies will redouble efforts to combat invasive species and devote greater attention to three major watersheds choked with algae blooms caused by excessive phosphorus runoff.

Jackson said she was optimistic that money would continue flowing. Obama has requested $350 million for 2012. Scientists and activists say billions will be needed over many years to nurse the lakes back to health after more than a century of abuse.

"The president's commitment to the Great Lakes and the idea of Great Lakes restoration remains strong," Jackson said. "It doesn't exist in a vacuum, so it's probably reasonable for us to be able to show over time ... measureable progress, real results. And I think as long as we do that, we'll be able to successfully argue to Congress that this is money well spent."

The U.S. and Canada designated 43 hot spots across the region as "areas of concern" in 1987, largely because the river bottoms are laced with toxic chemicals. They have problems such as fish with tumors, foul drinking water and beaches unfit for swimming. Of those, 26 are in the U.S., 12 are in Canada and five straddle the border.

Work has progressed in many of the areas but only four have been improved enough to be dropped from the list three in Canada and the Oswego River and Harbor in New York. Spending cuts in both countries slowed the cleanups during the 1990s, said John Gannon of the U.S. Geological Survey's Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor. The Bush administration spent more than $125 million on toxic sediment removal.

Jackson said during the 2012 fiscal year, agencies will step up work on the Sheboygan River in Wisconsin, White Lake and River Raisin in Michigan and the Ashtabula River in Ohio. Areas to be targeted in 2013 include Deer Lake, the Manistique River, the St. Marys River and the St. Clair River in Michigan and Waukegan Harbor in Illinois. She didn't say how much additional money might go to those areas.

The goal is to complete hands-on work at those areas such as dredging sediments or restoring wildlife habitat within one year, said Cameron Davis, Jackson's top Great Lakes adviser. After follow-up monitoring to make sure pollution is at acceptable levels, states can begin the process of getting the sites removed from the list.

"There are folks who have spent their entire careers working on these areas," Jackson said during a Great Lakes conference at Wayne State University in Detroit. "Our attention and efforts will be focused on what we can do to get some of them done."

Finishing the cleanups will depend largely on whether others outside the federal government help pick up the tab, Jackson said. The restoration initiative can pay up to 65 percent of the costs. EPA distributed a brochure at the conference asking for help from state and local agencies, advocacy groups and others.

Instead of spreading resources evenly across all 26 U.S. sites, it makes more sense to steer them to a smaller number of areas that are within reach of completion, Jackson said.

"We try to find places where we can make a commitment to actually hit a milestone," she said.

Jeff Skelding, director of the Healing our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, said that approach will help make the case for Congress to keep funding the program.

"It makes sense to steer the money to where the problems are most challenging and where solving them will produce both environmental and economic benefits," said Skelding, whose group represents 120 Great Lakes advocacy groups.

The three watersheds on which the phosphorus reduction efforts will be focused are the Maumee River in Ohio, which flows into Lake Erie; the Lower Fox River in Wisconsin, a tributary of Lake Michigan's Green Bay; and Michigan's Saginaw River, which goes to Lake Huron. Each has been plagued with overrun algae, a problem that appeared largely solved decades ago but has returned in recent years.

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