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Great Lakes Article:

With no cash, Great Lakes plan a washout

June 1 , 2002


Chicago Sun-Times

President Bush may not be much of an environmentalist, but he's a pretty astute politician. Many political pundits believe that the Great Lakes states will be key to the 2004 election outcome. And, indeed, Bush has paid repeated visits to this region and its critical swing states of Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin. Other than his ranch in Crawford, Texas, he has spent more time in the Great Lakes states than anywhere outside of Washington.

So it was certainly no accident that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Whitman recently announced a new "Great Lakes Strategy 2000" to protect the region's key natural resource. The Great Lakes provide daily drinking water for 28 million people and recreation for millions more. They generate $4.5 billion a year in tourism and recreation-related revenue and enhance the quality of life in hundreds of lakeside communities. Their economic value is reflected in the hefty premiums paid for lakefront high-rise apartments with stunning views and for pricey shoreline properties.

Moreover, this tremendously valuable resource is suffering from significant environmental challenges. Sadly, mercury contamination has resulted in widespread "fish advisories" warning women of childbearing ages and children to limit their consumption of Great Lakes fish. Coal plants and waste incinerators produce most of this mercury pollution as well as sulfur dioxides, which cause acid rain.

Combined sewer overflows in urban areas regularly pour raw sewage directly into lake water, while agricultural runoff containing fertilizers and pesticides adds non-point source pollution. Last year, the Chicago area alone experienced 599 beach closings--the highest number on record.

A recent General Accounting Office report cited that none of the 26 contaminated areas in the United States section of the Great Lakes had been cleaned up, and only half have a plan for how they would be cleaned. In 1987, the United States agreed with Canada to clean up all 43 of the contaminated sites in the Great Lakes. To these threats, and others, the Bush administration now has responded with its "Great Lakes Strategy 2000."

There is recent precedent for political imperatives driving progressive environmental policy. In 2000, President Bill Clinton proposed and Congress enacted an $8 billion program to protect and restore the Florida Everglades. But the timing of the Clinton-Gore Everglades initiative was hardly accidental. Conventional political wisdom held that Florida would be pivotal in the November 2000 presidential election. The Everglades initiative may have had political benefit, but it was a case where good government was good politics.

While commendable in concept, Whitman's announcement of the Great Lakes initiative had an essential and fatal flaw: zero funding. The plan's potential benefit to the president's 2004 re-election is completely undermined by his failure to back it up with federal dollars. This oversight is amplified when other regions of the country are reveling in federal assistance aimed at solving their environmental problems. The federal government has established the aforementioned Everglades Trust Fund and provides billions of dollars to alleviate pollution from sewage runoff in the San Francisco Bay, Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound. Yet, the Great Lakes--an arguably more important asset--remain a federal funding orphan.

The Great Lakes are a national treasure, and their restoration should be a national priority.

As the Bush plan acknowledges, we know the extent of the pollution problems, their causes and how to solve them. We must establish a Great Lakes Trust Fund that actualizes the federal commitment to their future. If the environmental imperatives cannot persuade Bush to make that investment, the political imperatives should.

Rahm Emanuel, a former senior policy adviser to President Clinton, is the Democratic nominee for Congress from the 5th District of Illinois.

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