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Great Lakes Article:

Critics: EPA plan for Lakes lacks muscle


Wednesday, April 03, 2002

By John Tunison
The Grand Rapids Press

West Michigan environmentalists will believe in a new Bush administration initiative to protect the Great Lakes when they see the money.

Christie Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, unveiled the plan Tuesday in Muskegon that she said addresses the most serious problems facing the five lakes, including sediment contamination, invasive species, loss of habitat and the production of fish unsafe for human consumption.

But no new money has been committed, said Steve Brandt, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Lansing.

Officials with the Lake Michigan Federation, an environmental group with an office in Grand Haven, said they will need more convincing proof of the EPA's commitment to the lake's future.

Tanya Cabala, state director of the federation, believes the Bush administration has favored business and commerce over stronger environmental standards and questioned whether the Great Lakes strategy would have any teeth.

She said the plan provided few new ideas, but does offer a forum to coordinate efforts.

"I think (Whitman) took the opportunity to visit West Michigan to shore up the EPA's image," Cabala said.

The strategy was created by the Great Lakes U.S. Policy Committee, a partnership of senior environmental officials from federal, state and tribal agencies.

"Everyone who enjoys the Great Lakes can appreciate the goals the partnership has set to ensure that the Great Lakes basin is a healthy, natural environment for wildlife and people," Whitman said, speaking at the NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory field station in Muskegon.

Among the plan's objectives:

  • Reduce the concentration of PCBs in lake trout and walleye by 25 percent by 2007.

  • Restore or enhance 100,000 acres of wetlands in the Great Lakes basin by 2010.

  • Substantially reduce by 2010 the further introduction of invasive species, both aquatic and land-based, to the basin's ecosystem.

  • Speed up the pace of sediment remediation, leading to the cleanup of all contaminated sites, by 2025.

  • Ensure that 90 percent of Great Lakes beaches are clean enough to be open 95 percent of the season by decade's end.

The EPA says more than 30 million people receive their drinking water from the Great Lakes. The lakes have more than 600 beaches on U.S. shores.

Russ Harding, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality, said the state will work with the EPA to make the plan successful.

"We need to continue to be diligent, and we can't backslide on chemical contamination," he said.

Harding said there continues to be "great concern" about invasive species.

Part of the EPA's plan would put a focus on cleaning up 31 polluted harbors on the United States' side of the Great Lakes. Among those are the Kalamazoo River, Muskegon Lake and White Lake -- all of which have contaminated sediments.

Saugatuck City Manager Gordon Gallagher said he supports any environmental initiative to clean up PCB-contaminated soil at the bottom of Kalamazoo Lake and Kalamazoo River.

"I think that would be terrific. I think cleaning up the river is one of the community's highest priorities," he said.

Cabala, with the Lake Michigan Federation, said she hopes the EPA and the state DEQ also focus on enforcing existing environmental laws, such as protecting wetlands, and not relaxing standards for contaminant levels. She said the DEQ wants to relax a standard for Dioxin.

"The goals are not going to be met unless we enforce those laws," she said.

Other state environmentalists and politicians say they are hopeful the EPA strategy will make a difference in the quality of the lakes.

"I'm certainly optimistic because at last this magnificent resource has caught the attention of the U.S. EPA administrator," said Dave Dempsey, with the Michigan Environmental Council in Lansing.

U.S. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Holland, praised Whitman's effort.

"The Great Lakes are an important resource for Michigan, and indeed, all of America, in terms of their natural beauty, importance to tourism and recreation, as an economic corridor, and as the world's largest source of fresh water," he said.

Hoekstra has introduced legislation, The Great Lakes Ecology Protection Act, that seeks to prevent further introductions of non-native species into the Great Lakes. The bill would require ballast water and ballast tank sediments be treated to prevent non-native species from being introduced in discharged ballast water.

Introduced almost a year ago, the bill is in committee.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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