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Published: Thursday, 2/7/2008

Critics fear budget to hurt Great Lakes

While a number of Great Lakes public officials and environmental activists are crying foul over President Bush's proposed budget for the 2009 fiscal year, U.S. EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said the $7.14 billion his agency would get "represents government at its best."

"It helps [the U.S.] EPA meet our environmental goals, while being responsible stewards of taxpayers' dollars," he said, citing proposed increases in energy and homeland security.

But critics don't see it that way.

They see less money for the Great Lakes region at a critical time in its history.

They're also troubled by additional cuts proposed for the U.S. EPA's Clean Water State Revolving Fund, the bread-and-butter account for sewage improvements nationwide.

According to the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, an assortment of 90 Great Lakes area zoos, museums, aquariums, parks, environmental, fishing, hunting, and conservation groups, Great Lakes programs will be funded at 16 percent less than current levels if the plan goes through - about $295 million for the region, a $56 million decrease.

Great Lakes states also would get 19 percent less from the national sewage-improvement fund, which has steadily eroded during Mr. Bush's two terms.

The President's plan calls for the eight Great Lakes states to get $201 million, or $48 million less, from that fund.

"The White House budget leaves the Great Lakes on thin ice and underscores the need for the U.S. Congress to act now to address the serious threats to the lakes," said Jeff Skelding, the coalition's national campaign director.

The coalition, with support of the Wege and Joyce foundations, was formed in 2005 with the help of various other contributors after the administration announced it would not fund $20 billion in Great Lakes restoration work that a Bush task force itself recommended.

Administration officials at the time cited the war in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as competing interests.

Sewage needs accounted for half of the $20 billion of work identified.

Cuts also are eyed for programs aimed at controlling invasive species and restoring fish and wildlife habitat, the coalition said.

Shakeba Carter-Jenkins, a U.S. federal EPA spokesman in Washington, did not return calls yesterday.

The Bush plan, though, includes a proposal for more money under the Great Lakes Legacy Act, which is used to clean up polluted sediment in Great Lakes harbors.

Toledo's Ottawa River is a potential benefactor of that act, local officials have said.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich) said Mr. Bush's budget plan "fails to address the serious problems facing our Great Lakes," while a Democratic colleague, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, said it falls short of promoting enough clean, renewable energy.

The senior member of the House, U.S. Rep. John Dingell (D., Dearborn), whose district includes Monroe County, expressed displeasure over proposed cuts for programs aimed at controlling air pollution.

U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) said the President "should be expanding our protection efforts for the Great Lakes, not cutting resources for water protection."

- Tom Henry



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