How to best spend a billion dollar windfall? Stay the bureaucratic course or full speed ahead on cleaning up toxic sites?
It was like Christmas in August recently for the Great Lakes when the Senate finally reached a compromise agreement on President Joe Biden’s big infrastructure bill. It is now in the House where its future is less certain.
Quietly tucked into the legislation was $1 billion for the Great Lakes. Specifically, for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), the 2010 Obama era program designed to restore the lakes to a semblance of the pre-industrial era.
Here’s the kicker.
This billion dollar gift is in addition to the annual $300+ million GLRI has received annually since 2010. To date, the program has funded Great Lakes cleanup projects to the tune of $3.5 billion with another billion or more dollars tentatively scheduled for the next four years. That’s a boat load of money.
So, good news right?
Maybe, depending on where the money is spent.
I’ve tracked GLRI since its inception in 2009 and when in the planning stages. The good news is that it’s a big program of the type that only the federal government can implement. The bad news is it’s a big federal government program which means it comes with a lot of baggage.
In addition to the eight states, toss in a dozen federal agencies and the requisite state agencies and you end up with a bureaucratic, slow moving train of a restoration project that’s a mile wide and an inch deep. And where seemingly every member of congress in a district close to the Great Lakes has to have a slice of the federal pie. Legislators love to host press conferences where they can brag about bringing federal funding, warranted or not, back to their district.
Back to the $1 billion of newly-found funding and how to spend it.
Cleaning up 26 toxic sites in the region designated Areas of Concern in 1987 has been part of the original GLRI plan and has badly lagged. Of the 26, only five have been removed from the list.
The Detroit River for example still has 3-4 million cubic yards of toxic sediment on its bottom and remediation won’t happen until 2030 or later, I’ve been told by knowledgeable sources.
What if that billion dollars of Biden bucks was set aside specifically for those 21 remaining toxic sites? There’s a credible plan.
And it’s not my plan.
In the run-up to creation of the big infrastructure bill, a coalition of Great Lakes activist groups wrote to Congress requesting $1.5 billion for the Areas of Concern. I often disagree with those groups on restoration priorities and level of success, but on accelerating toxic site clean up, they’re on the mark.
I recently told a colleague that I would no longer write about the GLRI program. That’s because it drones along with some success but that’s combined with more than enough inertia.
One Great Lakes watcher told me a few years ago that succeeding generations, when they look back at this era of restoration, will say that their predecessors didn’t accomplish that much.
Minimally, I’ll still keep an eye on those AOC’s and what happens with the Detroit River. It’s the heart of the Great Lakes and also a mile from where I grew up so I feel obligated to report on its health and hopefully, recovery.
Besides, it deserves better than it has received from the multi-billions of dollars spent on restoring the Great Lakes.
Photo: Detroit River via NOAA.
Chicago-based environmental journalist