WASHINGTON — With reports swirling that President Donald Trump intends sharp cutbacks at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Free Press has learned that a drastic reduction may be under consideration for Great Lakes restoration efforts, which in the past have received bipartisan support.
The National Association of Clean Air Agencies confirmed for the Free Press late Thursday that an initial proposal from the White House Office of Management and Budget calls for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to be cut from $300 million a year to about $10 million.
The cut was first reported by Rob Davis, a reporter for the Oregonian, who tweeted a list of potential cuts — none of which have been finalized. Bill Becker, executive director of the Association of Clean Air Agencies, which includes the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality as a member, was unable to release the proposal but confirmed the figures. He said they could be appealed by the EPA before a budget request is finalized and presented to Congress, which is expected to happen this month.
Neither the Office of Management and Budget nor the EPA responded to the Free Press on the report and whether such a cut was included in a list of initial reductions under consideration.
But as Davis noted in questions posed to him on Twitter, the report was in line with other media reports this week about proposed cuts at the EPA.
The Washington Post first reported this week that the White House was looking at cutting the EPA budget from $8.2 billion to $6.1 billion and reducing staffing by 3,000 employees as it looks to increase funding for the military and slash regulations.
If the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is targeted for such a drastic reduction — and it is by far the largest dollar cut on Davis’ partial list from the association’s data — it would decimate a program that has helped pay to restore wetlands and improve water quality across the Upper Midwest.
Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania — Great Lakes states that backed Trump in the election last year — have all received funding under the initiative, which many lawmakers of both parties in the region have steadfastly supported even when other Republicans have moved to reduce it.
In Michigan, it has helped to pay for improved fish habitat and a pier at Detroit’s Belle Isle; altered channels and dredged river bottoms to remove mercury pollution; created artificial lakes for lake sturgeon and other fish species, and added thousands of acres of wetlands to protected areas as well as funding scores of other projects.
Jordan Lubetkin, a spokesman for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, said that even with a long legislative process to follow when the Trump administration submits its final budget proposal to Congress, there are reasons to worry.
“From what we’re hearing these kinds of cuts to EPA programs and EPA staff are very concerning and very troubling,” he said. “The scale at which these cuts are being discussed would be devastating.”
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who helped launch the program in 2010, said in a statement: “It is outrageous that just days after delaying a critical plan to stop Asian carp, it appears that President Trump’s budget is calling for a 97% cut in funding for the bipartisan Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.”
The target list tweeted by Davis included deep cuts to efforts to protect other bodies of water, including Chesapeake Bay, San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound.
While the list was far from complete, it also included a $13-million reduction in compliance monitoring, the program through which the EPA ensures that drinking water standards are met.
An emergency was declared in Flint early last year because of high lead levels in drinking water after the EPA’s partner in local compliance monitoring — the state DEQ — failed to require controls to keep lead from leaching from old pipes.
While reports of deep cuts at the EPA are worrisome to many in support of its mission and programs, any moves to enact those reductions still have a long way to go, however.
The new EPA head, former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, is expected to review any proposals for cuts before a budget plan is finalized. More significantly, those plans will have to be submitted to Congress, which typically drastically rewrites appropriations. And while Republicans hold majorities in both chambers, they do not have enough votes to unilaterally push a budget through the Senate.
“Whatever the president sends us does have to be scrutinized by the (House Appropriations) committee chair,” U.S. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., said in a telephone town hall with constituents on Tuesday. “There is a check and balance. … Congress in the final analysis will decide what these different agencies get.”
Detroit Free Press