Canton Repository

March 17, 2006

Great Lakes future at issue

By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON - A $20 billion plan to save the Great Lakes fashioned by a coalition of federal, state and local leaders is jeopardized by lack of federal leadership and funding, critics charged during a Senate hearing Thursday.

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Cleveland, expressed alarm at what he called poor coordination of more than 100 Great Lakes-related programs as he chaired a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.

There’s no “orchestra leader,” Voinovich told Stephen Johnson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Who’s going to be the orchestra leader? I hope it’s not going to be Region 5,” he said, referring to the regional EPA organization that carries out federal policy in Ohio and five other Great Lakes states.

Johnson, one of the witnesses testifying at the hearing, responded that he was the orchestra leader because he heads an interagency task force responsible for coordinating 140 federal programs impacting the lakes. President Bush created the task force in May 2004.

That prompted Voinovich to put Johnson on notice that he plans to hold another hearing in three months to examine federal management of the programs.

Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Cedarville, and Ohio Gov. Bob Taft also spoke at the hearing, during which the audience overflowed out of the hearing room into the Senate hallway. The meeting also drew Michigan’s two Democratic senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, and several representatives of business and environmental groups.

DeWine warned that the lakes are at the “tipping point,” meaning if action is not taken soon, it will be too late.

“Unfortunately, the Great Lakes remains in a degraded state,” he said. “We need to act now.”

Taft agreed with Voinovich that better federal leadership and additional funds are needed to carry out the plan, which carries a price tag of $20 billion over five years.

“We encourage the federal government to reorganize and align their multiplicity of confusing programs around the central priorities that we have established,” he said.

Taft helped put together the plan or strategy for preserving the Great Lakes, which was issued by the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration in December. The group included more than 1,500 people, including federal, state and local government officials; Indian tribes and other organizations.

Bush has proposed spending $70 million on the Great Lakes in 2007, including $50 million to clean up contaminated sediments in the lakes.

The $50 million cleanup request is $20 million more than Congress is spending this year, according to the federal Office of Management and Budget.

In the past two years, the funding has supported the removal of 200,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments, Johnson said. The EPA expects to remove another 650,000 cubic yards this year and next year, he added.

Johnson said the administration has proposed millions of dollars in additional spending for other programs that will benefit the lakes, including restoration projects and flood control.

While commending Bush for the initiatives, Taft said he was disappointed there is not any money to build two barriers in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.

Taft also urged the administration to add $50 million to help clean up abandoned industrial sites along the Great Lakes shoreline and increase federal assistance for water and sewer projects.

Although most of those who testified supported the basic plan and urged greater funding, a representative of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan cast doubt on the entire enterprise.

Diane Katz, director of science, environment and technology policy at the free-enterprise oriented think tank, criticized the restoration plan for prescribing “more unwieldy and inefficient regulation.”

“On the one hand, the (plan) laments the failure of existing programs to adequately protect the Great Lakes,” she said. “On the other hand, the strategy calls for greatly expanding the regulatory powers of the very government agencies that the strategy argues have mismanaged the job.”