WASHINGTON - Federal, state, and local officials agreed yesterday that they need an “orchestra leader'' to direct Great Lakes cleanup efforts but disagreed on who should play the role.
At a Senate hearing, an official of the Council of Great Lakes Government contended his group should take the lead in setting priorities for Great Lakes environmental restoration programs.
But representatives of various federal agencies agreed with a General Accounting Office recommendation that the Environmental Protection Agency should play that role. EPA officials said they'd be happy to take on the job but argued they would need broader powers from Congress to do it right.
“The problem is really how to organize this thing,'' said Sen. George Voinovich (R, Ohio), who presided in his role as chairman of the Senate subcommittee on oversight of government management. “It will take a lot of brainstorming.... But we have a chance, as federal officials, to bring all of this together.''
Legislation introduced earlier this week would create a Great Lakes Advisory Board to play the role of coordinator by setting priorities for environmental restoration projects. The board would include representatives of all federal, state, and local groups involved in Great Lakes restoration programs.
The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Mike DeWine (R, Ohio) and Carl Levin (D, Mich.), also would create a federal Great Lakes coordinating council to coordinate all federal activities in the Great Lakes. The legislation would target $6 billion in federal funds over 10 years to boost Great Lakes clean-up efforts.
The legislation and yesterday's hearing are a response to a GAO report released last April. The report found that there was little coordination and no unified strategy for the hundreds of federal, state, and local efforts to restore the environment of the Great Lakes. As a result, the GAO stated, “it is not possible to comprehensively assess restoration progress in the Great Lakes.''
To remedy the situation, the GAO recommended that the EPA – through its Great Lakes National Program Office – develop an overarching Great Lakes strategy. The GAO also suggested that the EPA also should create an environmental monitoring system that could be used to measure overall restoration progress.
While progress has been made in cleaning up the Great Lakes over the past few decades, much remains to be done, said John Stephenson, director of the GAO's natural resources and environment division. Human sewage still is flowing into parts of the lakes, some fish still contain unhealthy levels of toxic chemicals, and there are hundreds of beach closings annually, he added.
To develop a national strategy, Congress could decide to create a new group, as Mr. DeWine and Mr. Levin's legislation would do, or tap the EPA for the role, Mr. Stephenson said.
“We think that the current EPA is in a good position to do it,'' Mr. Stephenson said.
But Thomas Skinner, the EPA's national program manager for the Great Lakes, argued that “with all due respect to the GAO, unfortunately our sister agencies don't think the EPA currently has the authority'' to take the lead in coordinating Great Lakes' strategy.
Mr. Skinner said later to reporters, “It's like herding cats. But we could do it if Congress wants to strengthen our authority.''
Christopher Jones, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency who testified for the Council of Great Lakes Governors, said the council disagrees with the GAO's recommendation to give the coordinating role to the EPA.
Margaret Wooster, executive director of Great Lakes United, said her group believes that Great Lakes restoration efforts should be led by an “independent body, not controlled by any one agency.''