Lakes cleanup bill raises hope, skepticism
By Douglas Turner
The Buffalo News
Published April 9, 2006
WASHINGTON - With so many new aspirations voiced for Buffalo's waterfront, Julie Barrett O'Neill is torn between hope and skepticism about the big cleanup plan for the Great Lakes announced in Congress this week.
The cleanup plan is a bipartisan $20 billion program to remove poisons from river bottoms, fix sewer plants, phase out the use of mercury in products and other efforts.
O'Neill, a Buffalo mother, rower and environmentalist, sees many gains for the lakes over the years, including the return of Buffalo Niagara's sport fishing and water clarity. "But the waters are still not drinkable, the fish by and large are not edible and the water is not swimable," said O'Neill, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, a watchdog and research group.
If the Erie Canal restoration, the Bass Pro store and proposed beaches on the waterfront are to be fully exploited, O'Neill warned, new sewer plants will have to be built and old ones upgraded. "I had an unpleasant realization one day when I was rowing in the Black Rock channel after a rainstorm," she said. "An outflow near Amherst street was serving up raw sewage, and I suddenly knew that I couldn't dip my hand in the water and cool off my face with it any more."
There are similar problems with sewer outflows in downtown Buffalo and the waterfront, she said.
Under President Bush, federal funding for sewer plant construction has been steadily cut. Allowing clean waters spending to shrink, O'Neill said, "is a tragedy for us and for the country."
The Great Lakes Collaboration Implementation Act would invest billions for these clean water facilities. It has been endorsed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Reps. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, and Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, and dozens of others in Congress.
But the legislation doesn't provide any real money. Funding is a two-stage process in Washington.
The first step is an authorization, which says Congress can appropriate money if it wants to. That's the meaning of the new legislation. These ambitious plans, however, run counter to what actually has been happening behind the scenes to budgeted appropriations - the second stage - on the same programs.
Slaughter, co-chairwoman of the Great Lakes Congressional Caucus, worries that the legislation may be just another political move to help Republicans in an off-year congressional election. "It is now incumbent on the Bush administration to do more than just pay lip service to the Great Lakes region," she said.
Others in the environmental movement, though, are confident that the money eventually will come. "This is not just an election-year fig leaf," said Andy Buchsbaum, spokesman for the National Wildlife Federation. "This bill is the product of collaboration of more than 1,500 people across the Great Lakes. . . . This is the most comprehensive Lakes cleanup plan ever proposed."
Taking no chances, Slaughter and other Great Lakes House members last month sent letters to three appropriations subcommittees asking for $200 million for a variety of Great Lakes remediation needs in 2007. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, was among the signers. Reynolds was not. Reynolds spokesman Lawrence D. Platt said Saturday he did not know whether Reynolds had asked for such appropriations.
At the same time, Platt released a sheet of talking points showing New York House members can use to support the bill. They include a survey showing that 84 percent of the state's waterways do not support swimming or fishing; the state's water treatment plants earned a "D minus" grade; pollutants can foster a return of Lake Erie's "dead zone" where no fish can live.
None of the state's toxic "hot points" have been dealt with, the paper said. One is the Buffalo River. In 1987, then Rep. Henry J. Nowak, D-Buffalo, thought he had persuaded the state and federal governments to start removing dangerous chemicals from the waterway. The National Parks Conservation Association praised the bill.
But officials of the same group made available a spread sheet showing what has actually happened to Great Lakes programs under President Bush and the Republican-controlled House and Senate.
For example, the president cut his request to Congress for sewer construction by 22 percent from fiscal 2006.
The new legislation springs from an executive order issued by Bush in 2004 to investigate how to completely restore the Great Lakes.
Since then, Bush has recommended eliminating the Great Lakes Fishery Restoration program, the Great Lakes Water Level Observation Network, Coastal Nonpoint Pollution Control program, and programs to keep invasive creatures reaching into the system via freighter ballast.
Overall, the White House has recommended spending cuts on all Great Lakes cleanup programs by nine percent, beginning in the 2007 fiscal year staring next Oct. 1, the parks group said.