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Published: 12/11/2005

Questions continue over who's to pay

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Environmentalists and some government officials are concerned that the Bush Administration will not deliver on promises to help clean up the Great Lakes. Environmentalists and some government officials are concerned that the Bush Administration will not deliver on promises to help clean up the Great Lakes.
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Temperatures are plunging. Snow is falling.

And so are hopes among environmentalists and many federal and state officials that President Bush will live up to his proposal to spend millions cleaning up and restoring the Great Lakes.

With winter setting in, Lake Erie is weeks away from once again being covered by several feet of frozen ice. Those passionate about the Great Lakes believe the cold and gray weather these days is commensurate with the view that exists in Washington these days of the nation's largest collective source of fresh water.

Starting tomorrow in Chicago, state and local officials in the Great Lakes region plan to turn up the political heat as they discuss a much-anticipated report stemming from what has arguably been the biggest and most comprehensive brainstorming effort on priorities for the lakes that a sitting president has ever ordered.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, co-chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, has been intimately involved in both that massive priority-setting effort and an even more complex water-management plan for the lakes that is expected to be signed in Milwaukee on Tuesday.

His spokesman, Mark Rickel, told The Blade last week that the governor will be speaking at events in both cities and continues to be irked by the response in Washington to the 73-page report issued Oct. 28 by President Bush's Great Lakes Interagency Task Force.

So is one of the region's most influential congressmen, U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D., Dearborn), a 50-year veteran of Congress who said in a statement Wednesday that he remains "outraged" by the task force report.

The task force, a panel of 10 agency and Cabinet officers who oversee more than 140 Great Lakes programs, called for no new funding for lake programs. For the past year, it has been shadowing the work of Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, a program Mr. Bush created in 2004 to come up with a wish list for projects ranging from wetlands restoration to sewage repairs.

Mr. Taft and 1,500 other state, local or tribal officials, plus numerous other interested parties, had input into the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration report that is to come out tomorrow.

What has irked them is the preemptive fired by the cabinet-level task force of advisers, who told Mr. Bush in their report that the Great Lakes region needs to make do with money that has already been budgeted.

Several Great Lakes advocates, including environmentalists, had added up the priorities identified by the broader White House-driven effort and got bug-eyed by the potential for at least $20 billion in new funding from a variety of local, state and federal sources. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials overseeing the collaborative effort, though, have pointed out that no such amount was ever promised.

That may be true - but Mr. Taft and his co-chair, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, as well as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, stated in a recent letter to the White House that they certainly were led to believe there would be some sort of new funding. So did 41 members of Congress in a separate letter they sent to Mr. Bush.

But George Kuper, president and chief executive officer of the Ann Arbor-based Council of Great Lakes Industries, said that expectations for new funding "were not particularly well managed."

He said he saw the last year's collaborative effort as a way of helping people identify ways that the Great Lakes region's economy can expand without harming the environment, even if that means simply redirecting existing funds.

"The numbers that were thrown out were not based in reality," Mr. Kuper said.

On Thursday, the National Wildlife Federation ramped up the anticipation for tomorrow's meeting with the release of a study that concludes the lakes remain under a tremendous amount of stress, including invisible threats such as global warming. That particular report was signed by 50 of the region's scientists, including state Sea Grant directors.

Today, 40 Midwestern state legislators who belong to the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators are wrapping up a three-day brainstorming session of their own in Chicago. Their gathering, focused largely on upcoming Great Lakes environmental legislation, has addressed issues such as nagging threats from invasive species, health effects from pollutant exposure, and placing restrictions on groundwater withdrawals by the bottled water industry.

But at the same time Great Lakes officials are applying political heat to Washington, they don't want to alienate Congress.

The water-management plan that the governors are expected to sign in Milwaukee on Tuesday includes a proposed regional compact among the eight Great Lakes states. Congress would have to ratify it for it to take effect.

The compact is one of two documents being considered under the proposed Annex 2001 amendment to a charter that governors signed in 1985 to limit additional diversions of Great Lakes water. The other is a non-binding, gentlemen's agreement between the states and the two Canadian provinces. Both proposals are intended to keep diversions and bulk water exports from occurring.

But Annex 2001 has drawn mixed reactions, even from within the environmental community. While groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Ohio Environmental Council support it, opposition has been voiced by the Council of Canadians - one of Canada's largest groups - plus several members of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international group founded by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and others, including some water law experts.

Washington officials also will be called upon early next year to begin negotiations on the first major update since 1987 to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada that former President Richard Nixon and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau signed in 1972.

The agreement was negotiated by the International Joint Commission, a binational body that has helped the two countries resolve common issues affecting the Great Lakes and other boundary waters since 1909.

A chapter on human health, which has not yet been publicly released and was provided to The Blade by a Washington-based nonprofit called Public Education Center, calls for a ban on flame retardants, broader fish advisories, and a cost-benefit analysis of mercury pollution, among other things. It said progress toward addressing the lingering effects of toxic chemical dumping from decades ago is occurring slower than the public may think. And in the case of some of the most damaging pollutants, such as mercury, the situation has even gotten worse.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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