EPA denies Great Lakes office closing

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency denied Monday that its Great Lakes regional office might close under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts.

The Trump administration indicated in its budget blueprint that it wants to close two regional offices and consolidate its regulatory activities, setting a deadline of June 15 to identify the offices. A Chicago Sun-Times columnist cited an unnamed Chicago official with federal connections as saying EPA Region 5 in Chicago might shutter.

But Robert Kaplan, acting regional administrator for the Region 5 office, said in an email to colleagues that the reports “are not true, are pure speculation and undermine our ability to communicate with the public the real information we have.”

A spokeswoman for the office forwarded the staff email to The Detroit News on Monday night.

“Some of you may be aware that EPA has discussed new ways to better integrate our efforts with the states, as well as eliminate excess office space, so that we can be more effective and save money,” Kaplan said. “At this time, our discussions have not veered into the subject of an office closure. Anyone stating anything to the contrary is spreading false information.”

Kaplan also said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt plans to go to the Chicago office this week “to discuss how we can make sure our efforts in East Chicago are successful.”

The EPA’s Region 5 office oversees major environmental cleanup sites in the Great Lakes region that comprises Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. It helped sound the initial alarm in government circles about lead in Flint’s water.

Nicole Cantello, a lawyer for the union representing the region’s EPA employees, said Monday that her “internal contacts” at the agency say Region 5 is a target, however. The Chicago office employs more than 1,000 people, and Cantello said its closure would cripple the agency’s ability to protect the Great Lakes.

“If you wanted to drive a stake in the heart of EPA’s enforcement capabilities, you would not open up a lot of positions in Kansas City and you would close down the Chicago office,” she said.

Most federal environmental programs for Michigan are enforced by state employees, said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, expressed concern about a possible closure.

“If true, this report is shocking and I would strongly oppose the closing of the Region 5 office,” Upton said in a Monday statement. “We must not turn our backs on the safety, health and future of the Great Lakes. Whatever the deficiencies of the Region 5 office, the folks there do play a critical role in protecting human health and the environment.”

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said he was “gravely concerned” with any effort to close the EPA’s regional office, “which would be a disaster for the Great Lakes.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, decried a possible closure and said, “The EPA’s mission is simple: to protect public health and our environment.”