The hostility from President Trump’s environmental adversaries is hardly without precedent in the Great Lakes region: For nearly a decade, when Stephen Harper served as Canada’s prime minister from 2006 to 2015, there were reports of muzzled scientists, lawlessness among polluters, and regulators unable to do meaningful enforcement because their agencies had become so budget-strapped.
Mr. Harper was instituting rollbacks on the Canadian side of the lakes long before Mr. Trump took office this past January.
Yet some experts who have followed the history of environmental regulation on both sides of the border fear the Great Lakes region may be headed into a deeper abyss as it continues to combat algae, the effects of climate change, efforts to dismantle the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and biological threats from Asian carp to unexplained viruses getting into the system and destroying native fisheries.
They cite Mr. Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the world’s most comprehensive effort to combat climate change, the Paris Agreement, as a sign of things to come. They likewise express deep concerns over two other actions Mr. Trump has taken on behalf of America’s troubled coal industry: His undoing of a major stream-protection rule aimed at keeping mining waste out of rivers and streams, and his dismantling of former President Barack Obama’s highly controversial Clean Power Plan that called for more extreme - yet costly - reductions in climate-altering power plant emissions.
Chief among those sounding an alarm recently is Jon Devine, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Washington office.
He told a standing-room-only crowd at the University of Toledo College of Law’s 17th annual Great Lakes Water Conference this month that America’s landmark Clean Water Act — which recently turned 45 — is now “undergoing a mid-life crisis” because of Mr. Trump.
“I can’t overemphasize how radical and comprehensive this [Trump] administration’s attacks on clean water have been,” Mr. Devine said. “It’s sad to say, but we are now governed by the most dangerously anti-environmental administration in history.”
Based in New York and created in 1970 in response to the first Earth Day, the NRDC is America’s largest group of environmental lawyers. It claims to have more than 2 million members and online activists who work with 500 scientists, lawyers, and activists from the East Coast to Chicago to San Francisco to Beijing.
Panel moderator Noah Hall, a Wayne State University professor and Great Lakes water-law expert, also raised concerns: “We have a frighteningly divisive growing politic prone to extreme. It goes beyond the environment.”
From left: Wayne State University's Noah Hall, Brian Barger and Jon Devine, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington D.C., during the Great Lakes Water Conference at the University of Toledo College of Law.
The Trump administration originally planned to have Dennis Lee Forsgren Jr., U.S. EPA deputy assistant administrator for water, on the panel with Mr. Devine but he canceled at the last minute and sent no replacement.
Brian Barger, an attorney in Columbus with Eastman & Smith Ltd., who has represented the mining industry, took Mr. Forsgren’s place. And while he stressed he was not speaking on behalf of the Trump administration, he said environmentalists often overlook why America is in its current predicament.
“The U.S. EPA [for years] was promoting distrust and a ‘gotcha’ mentality, rather than anything practical. The discourse in this country is it’s gotten to be one or the other,” Mr. Barger said.
Many people forget a Republican, former President Richard Nixon, created the U.S. EPA. And while Mr. Nixon was largely supportive of the landmark Clean Water Act and its emphasis on modernizing sewage-treatment plants, he actually vetoed it 40 minutes before the bill would have become law because of its estimated $24 billion price tag. Both chambers of Congress overrode Mr. Nixon’s veto by wide margins, 247-23 in the U.S. House of Representatives and 52-12 in the U.S. Senate, with 96 and 17 of the override votes coming from Republicans, respectively.
That same year, Mr. Nixon signed the equally important Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement with then-Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, establishing more specific restoration goals for the Great Lakes region.
Navigable waters ruling
Now, many concerns are being expressed about the Waters of the United States rule, also known as WOTUS, which has Great Lakes ties.
Developed by the Obama administration in 2015, the rule gives the federal government broader definition over what wetlands the U.S. EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are required to protect.
Its origins date back to a controversial Supreme Court case brought by the late John Rapanos, of Midland, Mich., who in 1989 backfilled 54 acres of wetlands in Michigan’s Midland, Bay, and Saginaw counties without first obtaining the required federal permits. Mr. Rapanos argued his land was 11 to 20 miles from the closest navigable water, which the government controls. The high court’s split ruling failed to resolve the issue, a controversy that still lingers with critics asserting the Waters of the United States rule inhibits developers.
On Feb. 28, President Trump issued an executive order calling for a rollback. He said it is “in the national interest to ensure that the nation's navigable waters are kept free from pollution, while at the same time promoting economic growth, minimizing regulatory uncertainty, and showing due regard for the roles of the Congress and the states under the Constitution.”
The order mirrors a 2006 opinion by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who argued disconnected wetlands should be exempt. The case, which is expected to be reheard by the Supreme Court, has major ramifications for water quality nationally and efforts to combat algae. Scientists assert wetlands function as vital filters.
Rise of Trudeau
Gibraltar Island and The Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory at Put-in-Bay.
Part of Canadian Justin Trudeau’s rise to power is rooted in public outrage over the Harper administration’s rollback of Canada’s Fisheries Act, said Martin Olszynski, a University of Calgary law professor.
Dozens of scientists, environmental groups, First Nations, and fisheries organizations were appalled by a 2012 rewrite to stop protecting fish habitat and instead focus on just preserving the most economically important species.
Tony Maas, director of Canada’s Forum for Leadership on Water, said the Harper era was viewed as “the death of evidence.”
“I think we’re seeing some restoration of that,” he said. “It’s always a challenge to come back.”
Patricia Morris, director of the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes section, said that venerable State Department-level agency has a lot of concerns.
Created in 1909 to help the United States and Canada resolve boundary water issues, the joint commission is especially known for its efforts to protect the Great Lakes. It is bothered that U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has fired several agency science advisers, scrubbed climate change data from agency websites, and not allowed climate scientists to speak at conferences. Mr. Pruitt, while Oklahoma attorney general, also fought the Obama administration’s Waters of the United States rule.
But she said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has shown he is not as pro-environment as Harper administration critics expected.
Mr. Trudeau, who is Pierre Trudeau’s son, has authorized pipelines to transport tar sands and has not blocked Ontario Power Generation’s plan to build a deep underground repository for low and intermediate-level nuclear waste a mile from Lake Huron, a project opposed by many public officials in Ohio, Michigan, and other parts of the Great Lakes.
“The reality is he’s not so environment,” Ms. Morris said. “Some of the actions he’s done have not matched the ideology that’s perceived.”
Canada’s carbon tax
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
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Canada, though, has become more aggressive on climate change under Mr. Trudeau. Besides embracing the Paris agreement, it has told each of its provinces to develop their own “carbon-pricing scheme” by early 2018, a tax plan Mr. Trump has said he will not impose on American industry.
“If they don’t, he [Mr. Trudeau] is setting it at $10 a ton,” Ms. Morris said.
Mr. Maas said he is encouraged by reports that Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, wants her nation to develop a program that resembles America’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
The initiative has provided about $300 million a year in new restoration funding since being created by the Obama administration in 2009. Mr. Trump tried to eliminate the initiative this year, but Congress kept it intact and funded at its existing level.
But Ms. Morris believes the initiative’s days could be numbered in the United States the longer Mr. Pruitt runs the U.S. EPA, which administers the bulk of such Great Lakes projects.
“I think it’s obvious the U.S. EPA won’t continue to support (the initiative’s) funding,” she said, predicting the Trump administration will ask for zero funding in its next budget. “Unless Congress keeps it in [again], it will be zero.”
She said the Great Lakes are at another crossroads.
“Neither administration, in my opinion, is predictable,” Ms. Morris said.
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