Senate panel hears plea for Great Lakes cleanup
Environmentalists say delay will prove even more costly to nation
By Matthew Chayes
Washington Bureau, Chicago Tribune
Published March 17, 2006
WASHINGTON -- The Great Lakes are ecologically ill, environmentalists told a Senate committee Thursday, pleading with lawmakers to help fund a $20 billion, long-term effort to restore and protect the nation's five Great Lakes.
But the advocates won no support from Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. He called the proposal too ambitious in the current debt-ridden fiscal climate.
While conceding that the federal budget is stretched, the environmentalists said the requested money was a necessary investment in an ecosystem that constitutes 20 percent of the globe's fresh water.
"If we don't spend a little money now, we're going to spend a lot of money later [on pollution-related costs], which would be completely unnecessary," said Andy Buchsbaum, a National Wildlife Foundation official who focuses on Great Lakes issues.
The Great Lakes Restoration Plan, among other goals, would halt sewage contamination of the lakes and clean up pollution.
In the Chicago area, the largest of the Great Lakes cities, the plan calls for the cleanup of Waukegan Harbor and the construction of a $6 million barrier to protect the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal from invasive species.
"The amount of resources needed to complete this work is a fraction of the costs associated with devastation to the Great Lakes that Asian carp will cause if they move into Lake Michigan," said David Ullrich, director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. He testified in place of Mayor Richard Daley, who was absent with a bout of the flu.
President Bush's 2007 budget contains about $2.2 billion for the Great Lakes scattered throughout hundreds of line-items, but that figure is about $220 million less than in previous years and is far less than what Bush's own lake-study group has recommended.
Proponents are comparing their efforts to nurse the Great Lakes back to health to the massive cleanup of Florida's Everglades that began in the 1990s with a unified bloc of Florida-area politicians.
Lawmakers from Great Lakes states are following the Everglades example, said Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.).
"The Everglades effort took a number of years," Kirk said. "For a project this big, it will take that long as well."
Frank Ettawageshik, a Native American chairman from Michigan, waxed poetic about the need for the $20 billion project, telling a crowd about his people's tradition to plan for seven generations in the future.
The need for the cleanup funds is real, he said, especially because many of the Odawa Indians he represents rely on fishing to make a living. Polluted waters have led the size of the fish to shrink.
"Fishing--it's a way of life, it's dealing with the elements of creation. It's eating our traditional foods," the tribal chairman said. "There's a knowledge that goes with the lakes and the waters. It's as much cultural as economic."
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