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Trump’s EPA cuts would undo local efforts to restore iconic places — like the Great Lakes

As it happens, regulation of business activity is only a tiny part of what the EPA does.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur: “It is hard to imagine a more perilous time for the Trump administration to abandon efforts that protect and restore our Great Lakes.”
REUTERS/John Gress

A virtue of the Trump administration’s move to slash the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by one-fifth is that many an American may come to understand where the money actually goes.

Here’s a hint — it isn’t all about regulation of business activity, burdensome or otherwise, as insisted by those who seek to demonize the EPA as an example of federal excess and overreaching.

Very often it’s about repairing past damage in order to make air breathable and water drinkable. Or heading off future harm, as pointed out by the Portland Oregonian, which obtained a detailed breakdown of the Office of Management and Budget’s draft plan for EPA funding and spotlighted several items, including these:

  • Beach water quality testing. The EPA spends about $9.5 million to fund state testing of bacteria levels at beaches around the country…. That would be eliminated.
  • Research on endocrine disruptors. The EPA’s work studying chemicals that can interfere with the body’s reproductive and developmental systems would nearly be eliminated, dropping from $7.5 million to $445,000.

And there are equally brutal plans that ought to be of special concern to Americans who care about natural places to undercut EPA’s role in the restoration of iconic portions of the national landscape. Like the Great Lakes.

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If you read Josephine Marcotty’s good piece about the Minnesota impacts in the Strib on Friday, you now know that a fair amount of the EPA’s budget is passed along to state units, like Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency, where it makes up about $25 million of the MPCA’s annual $200 million outlay.

Jon Linc Stine, the agency’s director, told the paper that the reduction “would cut across every area of our work,” including pollution controls on industry, air- and water-quality monitoring, mitigation of pollution discharges and cleanup of hazardous waste sites — the well-known territory of EPA activity.

But also mentioned in passing was the plan’s “virtual elimination” of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, “a $300 million effort to clean up decades of industrial pollution of the St. Louis River Estuary in northeastern Minnesota and the harbor in Lake Superior near Duluth.”

I will bet that not one MinnPost reader in 20 is aware of GLRI, and that among the knowledgeable souls only a handful realize that its funding is channeled through the EPA.

Bipartisan fan club

This is a hugely popular program with agencies and nonprofits in states that border the basin, also in their congressional delegations, and has been so ever since its creation during the presidency of George W. Bush.

GLRI was formed in response to collaborative calls from the region’s governors, and in both its origin and policies represents exactly the opposite of the heavy-handed, top-down regulatory philosophy that Donald Trump says is characteristic of the federal government, especially the EPA.

Yet its budget is on the chopping block today, with a suggested reduction of 97 percent, from $300 million to $10 million.

Although that $300 million is distributed from the EPA budget, it’s really a pass-through; the money itself is specifically allotted by Congress for a wide range of projects throughout the basin, nearly all of them initiated locally and proposed for funding on a competitive basis.

For example, in the last few years GLRI funds have backed a Duluth Community Action project to hire underemployed people and put them to work on a $600,000 program of habitat restoration along streams flowing to Lake Superior.

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Trout Unlimited got $100,000 for habitat upgrades along the Sucker River. The state’s Department of Natural Resources got $285,000 to inventory conditions along Superior tributaries as a prelude to a 25-year restoration plan.

Such small projects rarely make headlines beyond the local papers, if that, so maybe we shouldn’t expect much media attention when they’re threatened. It’s a bit of a different story over in Toledo, where GLRI money is helping to address the causes of algal blooms that shut down the city’s water intakes in the summer of 2014.

“It is hard to imagine a more perilous time for the Trump administration to abandon efforts that protect and restore our Great Lakes,” U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur told her hometown paper, the Toledo Blade. And, yes, she’s a Democrat, but likely will not have to struggle to find Republicans to join her in opposing the cuts.

The GLRI’s bipartisan support has sustained it through other recent assaults on the EPA and its programs, including a GOP-led effort to impose merely an 80 percent cut on the GLRI appropriation back in 2013. This was beaten back so handily, and by resistance also GOP-led, that John Flesher of the Associated Press described GLRI and its mission as “a 94,000-square-mile exception to the Republicans’ crusade to starve the federal beast.”

For all their indignation about government overreach, Republicans in the eight-state region are matching Democrats’ enthusiasm for an array of federal programs benefiting the inland seas, from dredging harbors to controlling invasive predators like the fish-killing sea lamprey.

(If you want to take a closer look at these and other projects that would be imperiled by the EPA cutbacks, you can find the GLRI home page with project lists and interactive maps here.)

Other great places in need

In reviewing the Trump OMB’s new attack, other journalistic outfits around the country have identified similar targeting of special places that need help:

  • San Francisco Bay, which benefits from an EPA program that funds wetlands restoration, pollution runoff reduction and shoreline rehabilitation, would see a complete elimination of its annual grant of just $4.8 million — which is matched with money raised locally, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
  • The Chesapeake Bay restoration program would be cut from $73 million per year to just $5 million, gutting what the Baltimore Sun calls a collaborative effort at repairing an estuary whose long decline is partly traceable to its unfortunate location — spreading across the jurisdictions of six states and the District of Columbia. Since 2010, a large multistate effort has sought to bring the bay back within a “pollution budget” that would allow the recovery of its native fish, crabs and oysters; two-thirds of the annual appropriation is turned over to the nonfederal partners to spend.
  • Puget Sound, the nation’s second-largest estuary system after the Chesapeake, would be dealt a 93 percent cut in EPA assistance to its recovery program, according to the Seattle Times; funding that now runs $28 million a year for wetland, floodplain and fish-passage repair would be capped at $2 million.

It’s obligatory to note that the OMB’s work is only a first draft of Trump’s first budget. Also that Scott Pruitt, new EPA administrator, made a show at the U.S. Conference of Mayors session last week of calling on local leaders to help him reshape the EPA budget to favor efforts that are “essential to protect.”

If these were times of political business as usual, there might be some solace in the idea that OMB’s draft would be debated and refined and horse-traded into something more sensible. But we are not in those times.

We have a president who seems not to hold the same governance goals from moment to moment — or to care a particle about consistency — served here by an EPA chief who has a long history as a leading antagonist of the agency and its protective mission. As the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilprin and Brady Dennis noted last week:

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Though President Trump professes to care strongly about clean air and clean water, almost no other federal department or agency is as much in the crosshairs at the moment. As a candidate, he vowed to get rid of the EPA “in almost every form,” leaving only “little tidbits” intact.

The man he chose to lead the agency, former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, sued it more than a dozen times in recent years, challenging its legal authority to regulate such things as mercury pollution, smog and carbon emissions from power plants.

So stay tuned, but don’t get your hopes too high.