July 7, 2005

Agencies Propose Great Lakes Cleanup Plan

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- From cleaning toxic hot spots to repelling the exotic species invasion, a blueprint requested by President Bush calls for governments at all levels to help solve the Great Lakes' biggest environmental problems.

A partnership of federal, state, tribal and local agencies released a draft plan Thursday for restoring the lakes ecosystem, which officials said remains in peril despite improvements the past 30 years.

Environmentalist groups praised the plan, likening it to other federal initiatives that have taken a comprehensive approach to ecosystem restoration in places such as the Florida Everglades and Chesapeake Bay. But they said its ultimate success would depend on how well Congress and state legislatures follow through - especially by providing money.

"If they do not, the Great Lakes as we know them and love them will continue to slowly die," said Tom Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association.

It wasn't immediately clear how much money would be sought. Based on numbers in the draft, a coalition of environmentalist groups said big-ticket items would cost roughly $20 billion over five years, including $13.7 billion to modernize city sewer systems. Legislation already introduced in Congress seeks $4 billion to $6 billion for Great Lakes cleanup.

Benjamin Grumbles, the EPA's assistant administrator for the Office of Water, said an overall price tag couldn't be determined - or even estimated - until the partnership sets its priorities and crafts a final version of the plan for release in December.

About 1,500 government workers and outside experts spent six months developing the draft, which could be revised extensively following a 60-day public comment period, Grumbles said.

"It's a solid foundation to go forward with," said Andy Buchsbaum, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes office. "The major concern is whether it will be funded."

Other projects to restore the lakes have been proposed over the years, including an initiative announced by Christine Todd Whitman, the former EPA administrator, in 2002.

Grumbles said the latest plan was different because it seeks to unite all the region's governments in a comprehensive effort. Eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces border the lakes, which contain 20 percent of the world's fresh surface water. Canadian governments will be invited to take part, Grumbles said.

Bush last year created a cabinet-level task force to coordinate Great Lakes cleanup efforts after a Government Accountability Office report described existing efforts as disjointed and producing uncertain results. The federal government alone has more than 140 programs for improving the lakes.

"Despite good intentions and hard work, the strategies and efforts to date simply have not been effective enough to do the job of cleaning up the Great Lakes or preventing further degradation," the draft report says, calling for "a much more concerted effort over a longer period of time."

More than 160 foreign species such as the sea lamprey and zebra mussel have entered the lake system, interrupting the food web and pushing out native species, the report says. It urges a crackdown on oceangoing ships that dump ballast water into the lakes, a leading suspected carrier of exotics.

Other recommendations include:

-- Restoring wetlands, streamside buffers and other crucial habitat.

-- Upgrading municipal sewers to stop the overflow of raw sewage into the lakes, which often prompts beach closings.

-- Cleaning up 31 areas with severe toxic pollution.

-- Reducing discharge of mercury, PCBs, dioxins, pesticides and other toxins into the lakes.

"The unique nature of these majestic lakes and their role in the cultural, economic and environmental well-being of our nation requires us to take bold action in their defense," EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson said.


On the Net:

Draft report text: http://www.glrc.us/