EPA chief touts Great Lakes plan in Detroit months after Trump’s proposed cuts

By: - October 22, 2019 2:13 pm

EPA Director Andrew Wheeler at Belle Isle announcement | Ken Coleman

During a Tuesday news conference in Detroit’s Belle Isle Park, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler outlined a revised Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action (GLRI) plan, a five-year effort to protect and restore the largest system of fresh surface water in the world.

GLRI plan graphic | Ken Coleman

“The [President] Trump administration is taking action to improve water quality while boosting local economies across the country,” said Wheeler. “More than $2.4 billion from the GLRI has funded over 4,000 restoration projects. The GLRI Action Plan III and the grant funding we are announcing today will continue to accelerate this great work to the benefit of millions of Americans living in and visiting the region.”

The GLRI  was launched in 2010 to accelerate efforts to protect and restore the set of lakes. Earlier this year, Trump again called for a 90% cut to the GLRI in his budget proposal, sparking bipartisan criticism from Michigan officials. 

When Trump kicked off his 2020 campaign in Grand Rapids in March, three Michigan GOP members of Congress — U.S. Reps. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland), John Moolenaar (R-Midland) and Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet) — rode with him and convinced the president to fully fund the initiative.

“I support the Great Lakes. They’re beautiful, they’re big, very deep,” Trump said at the rally. “I’m going to get … full funding, $300 million for the Great Lakes.”

Trump promises $300M for Great Lakes, otherwise mostly rambles

In June, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer requested Congress authorize a 58% increase to the GLRI, from $300 million to $475 million for the next five years. Whitmer argued that increased funding was necessary to deal with problems including lead and algal blooms threatening people’s health and ecosystems.

Wheeler’s announcement won praise from U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden).

“The EPA’s updated action plan sets an aggressive path forward to protect and restore the Great Lakes under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. … I look forward to working with EPA to continue improving water quality, protecting and restoring native habitats and species, and preventing and controlling invasive species.

However, Oakland County Water Commissioner Jim Nash noted Trump’s previous attempts to chop the GLRI that he said is “critical” for his job of “keeping our drinking water clean. 

“… Now he sends Andrew Wheeler to Michigan to say he supports the Great Lakes. That’s wrong – we need this money,” Nash said. “From rolling back life saving regulations to threatening to cut funding for critical programs, Trump has broken his promise to Michiganders to protect our Great Lakes.”

Rep. Dan Kildee
Dan Kildee testifying at the U.S. House Oversight Committee, March 6, 2019 | House Democrats photo

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) blasted the Trump administration’s “terrible record when it comes to protecting clean water and our environment. 

“Actions speak louder than words,” Kildee said. “Sadly, Administrator Wheeler is trying to mask the Trump Administration’s terrible environmental record. It takes a lot of nerve to fly into Michigan and celebrate Great Lakes programs that the Trump Administration previously tried to eliminate.”

And the Michigan League of Conservation Voters called Wheeler’s announcement “disingenuous and misleading.” 

“The White House’s track record for dismantling protections for our wildlife, Great Lakes, air and drinking water speaks for itself. Michiganders recognize the damage these rollbacks are doing to our most precious natural resources,” said Executive Director Lisa Wozniak.

USA, EPA flags at EPA announcement on Belle Isle | Ken Coleman

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) announced that he will file an amendment to a government funding bill to increase funding for the GLRI. The amendment, which will be filed with Appropriations legislation the U.S. Senate is set to consider this week, would increase GLRI funding for Fiscal Year 2020 from the current proposed level of $301 million to $320 million.

“I’ve seen firsthand just how crucial the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is in communities across Michigan,” said Peters. “The Great Lakes are more than an ecological treasure or economic engine: they are simply part of who we are as Michiganders. We need to do everything we can to protect the Great Lakes for future generations, and this amendment reflects the importance of that mission.”

Wheeler also announced $11 million in funding for grants to support GLRI projects in Michigan.

Whitmer, Huizenga hail Great Lakes funding restoration request

In addition to GLRI action plan, the agency announced that it has awarded five grants for restoration work in Michigan:

  • $2.2 million grant to Alliance for Rouge Communities to restore Tamarack Creek and Johnson Creek habitat flood plains along the Rouge River
  • $380,000 grant to Wayne County to design habitat restoration projects in Rouge River
  • $3.7 million grant to Michigan Department of Natural Resources to restore the natural surface water flow in flatwoods of Belle Isle in the Detroit River
  • $815,500 grant to Alliance for Rouge Communities to restore wetlands in Seeley Creek in the Rouge River
  • $3.5 million to Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to continue restoration work at 12 impacted sites on the Great Lakes and to coordinate the state’s lake-wide management plans for Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie as part of a new 3-year grant for $10.5 million

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.