By JESSICA HULETT
Capital News Service
LANSING — Time is evaporating at the statehouse and in Congress for action this year on proposals to help clean up the Great Lakes.
Discussion has already ended in Lansing.
In Washington, D.C., a bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate to require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to give priority to identified Great Lakes cleanup projects.
U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, both D-Mich., drafted the bill to also require the EPA to submit reports on actions taken and resources used to clean up the 26 defined areas that have needed assistance for decades. An additional $50 million would also be provided for cleanup.
A study by the U.S. General Accounting Office found that as of April, none of the 26 areas had completed the three stages of cleanup and are not in a condition for beneficial use.
“I’m very concerned,” Stabenow said. “The Great Lakes are an incredible natural resource; this is essential to our quality of life.”
The Great Lakes provide 33 million people with drinking water and contain 20 percent of the nation’s fresh water.
A similar bill by U.S. Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, passed in the U.S. House and has moved to the Senate.
“These bills are important; we have a tremendous sense of urgency,” Stabenow said. “Our goal is to pass them by the end of this year; right now, we are working for support.
“It puts the pressure on them (EPA) to set up a timetable.”
Stabenow and Levin drafted a letter to EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman earlier this year to express their concerns. They received a response that the EPA is actively reviewing the cleanup process and is redirecting efforts toward the sites that need improvement.
According to Gary Gulezian, director of the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago, the EPA has been making progress and the Great Lakes are cleaner than 10 years ago.
“There’s really a lot that the EPA is doing,” he said. “It’s a tremendous continuing investment, and we’re seeing an improvement.”
Gulezian said the EPA has done projects trying to resolve problems with mercury, sediment contamination and beach closures. Last year, about 200,000 yards of contaminated sediment were cleaned up across the Great Lakes Basin. And more cleanups are being planned.
“I think we’re making progress, but it’s a huge job; there are still lots of challenges ahead,” he said. “It’s been estimated that it will take between $2 billion and $6 billion to clean up the Great Lakes; that’s a high cost for society.”
Much work remains to be done. One problem is Polychlorinated Biphenyl levels in trout. Although they are 10 times lower than in the late 1970s, there is still a fish consumption advisory, which will stay in place until the levels drop by another factor of 10.
“The efforts aren’t lagging,” Gulezian said. “Everyone would like to see the efforts move at a faster pace. But we’re making progress.”
Stabenow has worked with officials at the state level and hopes that a new administration in Lansing will bring a new focus on environment. Actions by current administrators caused Stabenow to sponsor a bill to stop drilling in the Great Lakes.
“I am very hopeful that next year we’ll see more attention to the Great Lakes,” she said.
In Lansing, a package of four bills that would continue cleanup of the Great Lakes and connecting waters was not discussed during this past session of the Michigan Senate.
The office of Sen. Ken Sikkema, R-Grandville, the main sponsor of the bill package, said no further discussion of the four bills in the National Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee was scheduled for the September session, which ended Thursday. Sikkema’s office said November is the soonest the bills might be discussed.
“It has not moved as fast as I would’ve liked,” said Sen. Ken DeBeaussaert, D-New Baltimore. “But you have to start the process.
“We are widely appraised by people as being a blueprint for action and we can’t just put the blueprint on the shelf if we’re serious.”
The four bills include one to require a permit application fee to discharge into the water. Another calls for an annual wastewater discharge fee. A third would require permit applicants to demonstrate the steps taken to prevent water pollution. The fourth is an amendment to a 1994 bill to clean up contaminated sediments in the waters of the Great Lakes and connecting waters.
Proposal 2, which would fix leaking sewers and outdated wastewater treatment plants, would also help Macomb County with sewer problems, the suspected cause of many water quality problems around Lake St. Clair.
“Hundreds of thousands of people use Lake St. Clair,” said Sen. Arthur Miller, Jr., D-Warren. “Environment and lakes are such a priority and they have a big economic impact, too; if it’s not a healthy, clean lake, we won’t have boaters or tourists.
“We need to reassure people in Macomb County that Lake St. Clair will be a priority along with the other Great Lakes.”
Steps have already been taken to help with cleanup, such as the Clean Michigan bond issue of 1998, which will help remove Harrison Township septic systems that are failing and adding to the contamination problem. There is also a $2.5 billion appropriation in the budget for water quality in Macomb County. A more recent problem has been TCB (industrial by-product) contamination in St. Clair County, which will be costly to remove.
“The problems are staggering in their financial implications,” DeBeaussaert said. “But these issues are not going to go away.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By JESSICA HULETT