Great Lakes group wants $300M soon


CHICAGO A partnership of government agencies and private groups yesterday announced a request for $300 million next fiscal year from Washington to start cleaning up the Great Lakes, the source of drinking water for 30 million people.

Ohio Gov. Bob Taft found himself in the awkward position of staying loyal to an ambitious lakes restoration plan without soft-pedaling the disappointment he and others share over the likelihood that President Bush s funding will fall short of the $20 billion the cleanup is expected to cost.

Mr. Taft, co-chairman of the Council of Great Lakes Governors, noted a report issued last week that said the lakes may be on the verge of irreversible damage if a strong, unified plan to restore them is not implemented soon.

If we hestitate to spend money, we will lose time. And we do not have time to lose, Mr. Taft told a standing-room-only crowd of 350 elected and public officials, environmentalists, industry representatives, and citizens inside an auditorium at the Shedd Aquarium along Lake Michigan.

The gathering was for the release of a year-long set of priorities called The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy, which Mr. Bush ordered in May, 2004. The process began in earnest last December with a summit in Chicago. It ultimately involved 1,500 local, state, and federal officials as well as Native American tribal leaders and other Great Lakes advocates.

The plan stemmed from a Government Accountability Office report that said Congress could justify more federal spending on Great Lakes programs if all the 150-some local, state, and federal programs created to protect the lakes were not so fragmented.

So President Bush responded with a call for unity: He ordered the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy to be written as a master plan, and put the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency s Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago in charge of implementing it.

After the first draft was released last summer, observers tallied up the projected cost. They saw the potential for a $20 billion restoration effort, the largest for a single ecosystem in the nation s history.

Those hopes hit a roadblock Oct. 28 when Mr. Bush s Cabinet-level Great Lakes Interagency Task Force recommended no funding beyond existing projects.

Mr. Taft, his co-chairman, Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley urged Mr. Bush to disregard that Cabinet recommendation. So did 41 members of Congress from the Great Lakes region.

Yesterday, Mr. Taft told The Blade that Ohio EPA Director Joe Koncelik and others have requested $300 million in new money to at least get the projected $20 billion restoration plan going beyond existing projects.

The President has said the Great Lakes are a national treasure. It would be a national tragedy if we don t build on the momentum, Mr. Taft told the crowd.

In his interview with The Blade, Mr. Taft said the Bush plan could at least put the Great Lakes on the national map for multibillion-dollar ecosystem packages that Congress has thus far approved for only two other areas: the Florida Everglades and the Chesapeake Bay. We re poised to achieve that kind of prominence, the governor said.

Mr. Daley, a Democrat, called the Bush plan a long overdue blueprint for recovery that, unlike some previous efforts, is largely devoid of partisan politics.

Not all Democrats agree.

One of the region s most influential congressmen, U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D., Dearborn), who celebrates his 50th year in Congress this week, said in a statement last week that he remains outraged by the prospect of no new funding. Mr. Dingell was not at yesterday s event here and declined to attend the first such gathering, describing it as a Bush publicity stunt.

U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R., Grand Rapids, Mich.), who presided over yesterday s summit, said he believes the Bush Administration s funding commitment prevailed throughout the Cabinet until Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma devastated much of the Gulf Coast.

That totally changed the federal perspective this year and for several years, Mr. Ehlers said.

The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy calls for improvements in several key areas, including wildlife habitat and wetlands restoration, more cleanup of toxic sediments, better lines of defense against invasive species that disrupt the native-fish food chain, and fewer sewage overflows that foul water with bacteria and other contaminants.

One new project identified yesterday has a direct impact on Toledo and other parts of northwest Ohio.

U.S. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said the U.S. Department of Agriculture soon will announce plans to use Maumee Bay as a pilot project for national restoration research.

He had no more specifics. Federal agriculture officials familiar with the project were not at the summit.

Another project that is a component of the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy will bring $25 million in federal EPA funds to northeast Ohio to help clean up the Ashtabula River in Ashtabula.

The $50 million project will be the fourth site cleaned up with funds generated by the special five-year Great Lakes Legacy Act that Congress approved in 2003. It will be the first in Ohio under that program.

The Ashtabula was once thought to be Ohio s hottest spot for cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls. That distinction later passed to a small, unnamed tributary in North Toledo that once fed the Ottawa River. Thet tributary was shut off and cleaned up during the late 1990s.

The state of Ohio has agreed to contribute $7 million toward the Ashtabula project. The Ashtabula City Port Authority is responsible for the $18 million balance. That cleanup is to be completed in 2009, officials said.

Congress is authorized to provide up to $50 million annually for each of the five years the Great Lakes Legacy Act is in effect. The act has not yet received full funding in any year.

The first two cleanups under that program were the Detroit River s Black Lagoon near Trenton, Mich., and the Newton Creek/Hog Island inlet in Superior, Wis. Both were completed last month. A similar cleanup recently began at Ruddiman Creek in Muskegon, Mich.

Contact Tom Henry at: or 419-724-6079.