Washington — The administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that reports that its Great Lakes regional office in Chicago would permanently close are “pure legend.”
“There is no consideration presently with respect to any regional offices about moving them to one location or another. I’m not sure where that came from,” Administrator Scott Pruitt told a House Appropriations subcommittee.
Pruitt said he was visiting a Superfund site in East Chicago in mid-April when he learned of media reports that the Region 5 office might close under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts for the agency.
“That’s not been something we had discussed up until that point, and it is not something that is under discussion presently,” Pruitt said in response to a question from U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio.
The Region 5 office, which employs more than 1,000 workers, oversees environmental cleanup sites in the Great Lakes Basin that comprises Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota. An EPA staffer in Region 5 helped sound the alarm in government circles about lead contamination in Flint’s drinking water, but his report was not made public until after the contamination was revealed.
A Chicago Sun-Times columnist in April cited an unnamed Chicago official with federal connections as saying the agency might shutter the Region 5 office.
At that time, a lawyer for the union representing the region’s EPA employees also said that “internal contacts” at the EPA had identified Region 5 as a target.
Kaptur also asked Pruitt about Trump’s proposal to zero out the $300 million annual budget for the cleanup program known as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Pruitt said that in discussions with the White House’s Office of Budget and Management, his agency raised the “importance” of the Great Lakes program, but Pruitt did not commit to restoring its funding.
The proposal to eliminate the Great Lakes program is stridently opposed by bipartisan members of Congress from Great Lakes states including Michigan.
“This body for a number of years has recognized the importance of the initiative. We at the agency have recognized that as well,” Pruitt said in response to questioning by Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio.
“As we start in this process and continue the process, we look forward to working with you to address the objectives — the water quality objectives and you mentioned invasive species, as well. We want to make sure that the states affected — the commerce that’s part of the Great Lakes is preserved, and that we address that going forward in this budget.”
The budget plan “appears to largely remove the federal government as a partner in all our work to resolve and manage the Great Lakes,” Joyce said. “Is that fair?”
“I think there are functions that the agency can perform outside of, again, the funding and/or appropriations,” Pruitt said. “Obviously, money is important. I think the leadership role is important, as well. That’s going to continue.”
Joyce continued to press Pruitt, asking whether it is fair to expect states and local communities to shoulder the burden of cleaning up and caring for a “national treasure” such as the Great Lakes.
“We view those states as partners and stakeholders, and we’ll continue to view them in that fashion as we go forward and show leadership, but work with the stakeholders to achieve the good outcomes,” Pruitt replied.
Pruitt did not directly answer Joyce on whether the EPA would maintain the Great Lakes Interagency Task Force and Great Lakes Advisory Board.
“As we go through this, I think what’s important is to recognize the priority of the initiatives that have been historically prioritized by this body,” Pruitt said. “We are going to work with you to ensure those priorities are addressed, in whatever form it takes.”
Pruitt indicated that his agency is talking with state governors about having a “more vibrant” approach to cost-sharing for the cleanup of contaminated sediments under the Great Lakes Legacy Act.
“As far as the funding that has been proposed to be reduced and/or eliminated under this budget, I will echo what I’ve already shared with you,” Pruitt told Joyce.
“We recognize the importance of the Great Lakes. We recognize the importance to the citizens of that region, and we’re going to work with Congress to assure those objectives are obtained.”
Pruitt indicated that the plan to reduce EPA staff by more than 3,000 employees would not target specific offices or labs but would be achieved through attrition, voluntary buyouts and maintenance of a hiring freeze that’s already in place.