July 7, 2005
Duluth, Minn. — In Duluth's Leif Erickson Park, with a sparkling Lake Superior as backdrop, officials from all levels of government pledged their support for the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration.
The officials have been meeting for about a year, after President Bush asked them to find better ways to coordinate the 140 different programs that deal with clean water and the Great Lakes.
Ben Grumbles from the Environmental Protection Agency said the world's people are watching the progress of this effort.
"They're watching us to see how we go about this monumental effort, if we can really make a difference to come up with specific, sustained approach to restoring the Great Lakes," said Grumbles.
The draft report focuses on eight areas of concern. It calls for actions to block invasive species, improve habitat, reduce toxic pollutants and non-point pollution from agriculture and urban runoff. Among the specific recommendations:
-Restoring wetlands, streamside buffers and other crucial habitat.
-Upgrading municipal sewers to stop the overflow of raw sewage into the lakes, which often prompts beach closings.
-Enacting federal laws to prevent invasive species from entering the lakes.
-Cleaning up 31 areas with severe toxic pollution.
-Reducing discharge of mercury, PCBs, dioxins, pesticides and other toxins into the lakes.
Some 1,500 people participated in meetings that produced the draft report. They operated on a consensus basis, meaning they had to tread softly around some highly controversial issues, such as mercury from electric power plants.
Lee Sprague, chairman of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians near Manistee, Michigan, says he's disappointed the report didn't take a stronger stand on mercury.
"We had recently tested a bald eagle at the highest level of mercury in the feather of that bird in any place," said Sprague. "So air deposition into Great Lakes water is certainly a concern of ours."
Mercury is produced when anything is burned. Coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of airborne mercury in the region. It accumulates in fish and causes developmental and nervous system problems, especially in children. Sprague says it's time for a concerted attack against mercury.
"This country came together under EPA leadership when we got lead out of gasoline. It's going to take that same kind of work, that same shared vision, to make mercury this century's lead. We got rid of lead in gasoline; we can get rid of mercury," said Sprague.
But the draft report relies on existing rules for mercury, including trading emissions credits. Sprague says that would leave some people still in the shadow of polluting power plants.
A coalition of environmentalist groups praised the plan, likening it to other federal initiatives that have taken a comprehensive approach to ecosystem restoration in places such as the Florida Everglades and Chesapeake Bay.
But group leaders said success would depend on whether Congress and state legislatures provide necessary funding and enact laws to carry out the proposals.
The environmental groups said the combined cost of big-ticket items in the blueprint would be about $20 billion, including $13.7 billion to modernize the sewer systems.
Minnesota State Sen. Tom Huntley of Duluth chairs the Great Lakes Commission, an agency of the eight Great Lakes states and two Canadian provinces.
He says having broad agreement among the many different governments represented in the collaborative will provide a stronger voice in Congress. And he says the Great Lakes states should have enough political clout to command attention.
"There's eight states, and I think six of them were neither red nor blue during the election. They were gray, which means they were all swing states, so they're politically important. They can go either way, so the federal government has to pay attention," said Huntley.
The commission will hold public meetings to get reaction from citizens. A final report is due in December.
People who have been working on the project hope Congress and the states will use it as a template to set priorities and create ways to restore the Great Lakes. The question is how much money will be available.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)