Michigan reps rebel against gutting Great Lakes aid

The Detroit News

Congressional Republicans and Democrats from Michigan are objecting to what could be a massive federal funding cut for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative under President Donald Trump.

A “passback” spending proposal from the White House Office of Management and Budget includes steep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, including a 97 percent reduction for the $300 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, according to a copy obtained by the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.

The initiative “really got whacked,” Executive Director Bill Becker said. “It got eviscerated.”

The proposal, as first reported by the Oregonian newspaper, would slash funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which provides protection and restoration grants, to $10 million in 2018.

It is not a final spending plan, and it’s unclear how much the budget office conferred with the Trump administration or transition team before it “passed back” the proposal to the EPA, Becker said. The deliberative passback process does not include participation by state environmental agencies, such as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

The potential cut is “outrageous,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Lansing Democrat who is urging the Trump administration not to pursue the plan.

“This initiative has been critical to cleaning up our Great Lakes and waterways, restoring fish and wildlife habitats, and fighting invasive species, like Asian carp,” Stabenow said in a statement.

She was joined Friday by several Michigan Republicans, who reiterated their support for the initiative, as outlined in a Feb. 13 letter to Trump.

Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan’s senior Republican, called the proposed cuts “alarming.” He was among a large group of lawmakers who offered support for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, urging $300 million in continued funding in fiscal year 2018.

“Congress will have the final say on all budgetary matters, and we are only at the first step in the appropriations process, which actually funds the program,” Upton said in a statement. “As we move forward, I will be fighting hard alongside colleagues on both sides of the aisle so we can turn this around and make sure our Great Lakes are properly protected.”

Metro Detroit projects that received initiative money last year included $20 million to clean up the polluted Clinton River watershed, $4.5 million to diversify habitat along a nine-mile stretch of the Clinton River near Sterling Heights, more than $914,000 to stabilize a stream bank along the Clinton River in Shelby Township, and $375,000 to restore 3,500 feet of stream at Sylvan Glen in Troy.

Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, said the initiative “has made great strides in protecting and preserving our magnificent Great Lakes.” Rep. Paul Mitchell, the Dryden Republican whose district includes a large part of Macomb County, joined his colleagues in saying he will fight to fully fund the “critical” initiative.

Rep. Dan Kildee, a Flint Township Democrat, blasted the potential cut as an “extreme and dangerous” move by the Republican president, noting the Great Lakes are a major economic driver for the region.

“Protecting the Great Lakes has never been a partisan issue and it shouldn’t be now under a new administration,” Kildee said. “If these careless cuts are presented to Congress, I will fight them in every way that I can.”

Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Royal Oak, said slashing funding is “unconscionable” given the inter-agency program’s success, noting it accelerated the cleanup of environmentally degraded sites, including White Lake, during the last eight years.

An advocacy group, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, stressed that restoring the lakes is “inextricably linked to regional prosperity” and that funding cuts would roll back decades of progress.

“We have seen the tragedy and heartbreak that occurs when our nation’s clean water programs fail. Lead-tainted drinking water flowing from taps in Flint, Michigan. Toxic algal blooms shutting down Toledo, Ohio’s drinking water system,” spokeswoman Jennifer Caddick said. “If anything, evidence indicates that federal environmental protections should be more aggressive and accountable, not less.”

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding is part of a larger spending proposal that would cut Environmental Protection Agency funding 24 percent and staff by 20 percent.

The National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which includes the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality as a member, is also urging the Trump administration against proposed cuts to state grants for air and water pollution prevention.

Categorical grants to fight air pollution would be cut about 30 percent, from $227.8 million to $159.45 million in 2018, Becker said. Drinking water grants would be cut from $101.8 million to $71.2 million, another roughly 30 percent reduction.

The Trump administration has promised to downsize the EPA and give states more autonomy.

“Some states may agree with that, and certainly industry likes that, but instead of giving the states more money to take more authority, they’re cutting those budgets by over 30 percent,” Becker said. “That’s terribly disingenuous, and I haven’t talked to a state that hasn’t been terribly upset by this.”

The nonpartisan Environmental Council of States, which represents state and territorial environmental agency leaders, said the proposed EPA cuts for program grants implemented by the states would have “profound impacts” on their ability to operate core environmental programs.

Council President John Linc Stine said states on average provide more than half – in many cases, three-quarters – of the money used to run environmental programs delegated to the states by the EPA under the Clean Water, Safe Drinking Water, Clean Air and Resource Conservation and Recovery acts.

“States continue to fill the gap created by declining federal funds through increased fees on the regulated community and from other funding sources,” Stine, also commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, wrote to newly confirmed EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

The department is analyzing the proposed draft cuts to determine what those could mean for Michigan, DEQ spokeswoman Melody Kindraka said Friday.

A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency said the agency would not comment at this point in the process.

Pruitt on Thursday told a gathering of mayors in Washington that the budget conversation with Congress is “just starting.”

“There are some concerns about some of these grant programs that EPA has been a part of historically,” Pruitt said.

“I want you to know that with the White House and also with Congress, I am communicating a message that the Brownfields program, the Superfund program, water infrastructure (WIFIA) grants, state revolving funds, are essential to protect. It’s very important that we do that.”