Bureaucrats shortchange Great Lakes cleanup plan


Imagine working for the government and having 31 huge messes to clean up along the U.S. side of the Great Lakes - all with some of the harshest chemicals known to man embedded in sediment for decades, ready to sicken people, birds, fish, deer, muskrats, squirrels, and other forms of life.

Real filth. Stuff that stinks, kills property values, and offends your sense of decency, not to mention that of your state and local health inspectors. Gunk that keeps the world's largest source of fresh surface water from achieving its tourism and recreation potential.

You know that costs are rising. You know there still might be $4.5 billion of work left, maybe more.

The House of Representatives passes a bill on Sept. 18 to triple your funding eligibility. Do you try to get the Senate to do the same?

Ben Grumbles didn't. But his crime went beyond complacency.

Mr. Grumbles, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator for water, lobbied against our best interests by calling upon both chambers of Congress to reject the House version of a bill that would have reauthorized the Great Lakes Legacy Act at up to $150 million a year.

The act provides federal matching funds for 31 of 43 Great Lakes hot spots wholly or partially in the United States. The other 12 are exclusive to Canada.

The same act is expected to be tapped someday for the long-overdue cleanup of the Ottawa River in North Toledo, Ohio's most polluted waterway. Talk about your real estate sales pitches in a depressed market.

Now, thanks in part to Mr. Grumbles, the competition for those funds remains stiff.

Originally authorized in 2002, the Great Lakes Legacy Act had been authorized at $50 million a year.

Congress extended it Sept. 28 for two years, with the cap being nudged up to $54 million a year.

But this year's $34.5 million is the most that's ever been allocated.

Apparently under orders from the White House, Mr. Grumbles submitted letters to leadership in both chambers on Sept. 15, using the words "excessive authorization of appropriations" as his lame argument.

Shame on him. And shame on the administration.

The federal EPA needs to remember it was created in 1972 to protect public health and the environment. That's it.

Congress sets the budget. In this case, one chamber of Congress saw a need to jump-start cleanup projects.

It is not the federal EPA's place to say, in effect: "They've lived with the problem this long. What's a few more years?"

The House went ahead and passed the act at the $150 million level on Sept. 18, only to reverse itself 10 days later after the Senate essentially voted in the status quo on Sept. 25.

So we got a two-year extension at $54 million next year. I know. You're saying, "Cool it, Tom. Fifty-four million is pretty good coin, especially with all that's going on in the world today."

True. But this plea for less funding came before President Bush went public with his request for a $700 billion bailout of the financial industry.

Focus on this sentence from Mr. Grumbles: "We believe current funding levels are sufficient at this time, particularly given federal and state fiscal constraints."

Essentially, he's saying the federal EPA is content, though it has never even gotten the full amount.

I don't want federal EPA bureaucrats being content about the pace of Great Lakes cleanups. I want someone to light a fire under their you-know-what.