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Great Lakes Article:

EPA leader touts president's plan to protect Great Lakes
By Barton Deiters
The Grand Rapids Press
Published August 27, 2004

The head of the EPA was in Grand Rapids on Thursday to tout the Bush administration's commitment to the environment and to protecting the Great Lakes.

But for local environmentalists, actions since 2001 speak louder than words in the heat of a pitched election battle.

Michael Leavitt, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, touted plans by Bush to regulate levels of mercury, reduce pollution and streamline funding for environmental protection.

Leavitt traveled with U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers to gawk at the giant hole on Franklin Street SW just west of South Division Avenue, where workers lowered huge pipes into the ground as part of the city's sewer separation project.

Leavitt praised Grand Rapids for its efforts to eliminate combined sewer overflow into the Great Lakes and its tributaries, specifically the Grand River.

The pair and their entourage also traveled to the West Side to get a look at the Fish Ladder and face questions from TV reporters, city officials and environmentalists.

Leavitt, the former Utah governor appointed by Bush last November to head the EPA, is on a tour to discuss the Great Lakes Federal Task Force the president created by executive order. The task force is charged with protecting the Great Lakes, which supplies fresh water to 30 million people.

"I know of no other president who's signed an executive order like (this) pertaining to one region," Leavitt said during an interview at The Grand Rapids Press.

"This develops regional collaboration of national significance."

The task force brings together eight states, two nations and environmental and business interests. But don't look for any concrete action from the task force until after the November election. It then will begin an inventory of some 140 federal programs spread among 10 government agencies.

"There's not a person on the planet that knows how much money is being spent," Leavitt said.

It will be next summer before any proposals are made. That will be followed by six months of public comment, followed by congressional input.

Several environmental groups contend the effort is little more than a delaying tactic to avoid putting more money into environmental programs.

The Bush administration has slashed funding for Great Lakes protection by more than $249 million, said Jan O'Connell, chairwoman of the West Michigan region of the Sierra Club, who was on hand at the Fish Ladder.

She was introduced to Leavitt by Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, who referred to her as "a very reasonable member of the Sierra Club."

O'Connell asked Leavitt why EPA programs are the first to be cut. "I challenge that premise," Leavitt responded.

The EPA for the first time will have a mercury control rule, Leavitt said, adding that a proposal for controlling the toxin will be announced by mid-September.

But criticism already has surfaced. The Sierra Club contends the proposal actually would allow more mercury into the air. Advisories warning against consumption of fish tainted with mercury have been rising to the point where all but five states have advisories.

An increase in testing that has led to more advisories because mercury is everywhere, Leavitt countered, adding that 60 percent of mercury comes from outside the United States.

U.S. mercury emissions, Leavitt said, have dropped by 45 percent over the past decade.

Leavitt said the administration is working to keep West Michigan from having to implement emissions testing, which would lead to testing stations and more stringent emission control systems for automobiles.

"That's a painful experience for communities, and they don't like it," Leavitt said.

West Michigan has dodged that bullet in the past by convincing the EPA under President Bill Clinton that much of the air pollution here comes across Lake Michigan from Chicago and Milwaukee.

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