December 12, 2005

Great Lakes cleanup may hit $20 bln: US task force

By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The cost of a Great Lakes cleanup plan
unveiled on Monday by a White House-backed group could reach
$20 billion, a price that Washington has already said the U.S.
government cannot afford.

"The next step in implementing the plan is to obtain
funding," said Reg Gilbert of the environmental group Great
Lakes United after the plan was introduced at a news conference
in Chicago.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen
Johnson introduced the plan drawn up by a 1,500-member task
force made up of officials from federal, state and local
governments along with Indian tribal groups.

To ensure the health of the world's largest collective body
of fresh water, which 35 million North Americans rely on for
drinking water, the report called for billions of dollars in
government funding to refurbish decrepit municipal sewer
systems, clean up toxic "hot spots," keep out invasive species,
restore wetlands and other projects.

But after the task force, created in 2004 by President
George W. Bush, released a preliminary report in July, federal
agencies said in a letter to the White House that tight budgets
meant there could be no additional funding for Great Lakes

An EPA official said $20 billion was not necessarily what
would be spent.

"It states in the report that none of the partners are
endorsing every item in this report. We're all focused on
realistic and efficient ways to get the job done," EPA
Assistant Administrator Benjamin Grumbles told Reuters.

"The mayors, tribes, governors and members of Congress have
each independently recommended significant new funding next
year to implement the plan -- at least a net increase of $300
million over this year's federal budget for the Great Lakes
ecosystem. Now we are waiting for the administration's
commitment for significant new funding," Gilbert said.

"This restoration plan comes just in time," said Andy
Buchsbaum of the National Wildlife Federation. "The Great Lakes
are sick. Their immune system is damaged. If we quickly take
the actions in this plan we can heal the lakes."

For Indian representatives on the Great Lakes task force,
concerns focused on levels of mercury and other contaminants in
fish in the region that they rely on for income as well as

"We're spending billions of dollars looking for water on
Mars, but we're not even testing for mercury in fish living in
inland waters," said Chief Lee Sprague of the Little River Band
of Ottawa Indians, which fishes on Lake Michigan.