Michigan lawmakers railed today against an unconfirmed report that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could be considering closing its Region 5 office in Chicago.
Columnist Michael Sneed for the Chicago Sun-Times quoted an unnamed "city source" in reporting today that President Donald Trump's administration could be looking at closing the Chicago regional office as part of its budget cuts to the EPA and consolidating operations near Kansas City.
EPA officials in Chicago and Washington did not immediately respond to questions about the report. But Robert Kaplan, the acting regional director in Chicago, wrote in an email to employees there that stories about the regional office being closed were "not true" and "pure speculation."
"At this time, our discussions have not veered into the subject of an office closure," said Kaplan's email to employees. "Anyone stating anything to the contrary is spreading false information."
If the Trump administration -- which has already proposed cutting nearly one-third of the EPA's budget next year -- were to consider closing the office, however, critics were ready to charge that it is a move that would hurt the Upper Midwest and the Great Lakes.
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, was the first to weigh in today on the Sun-Times' report, noting the central role the EPA's Chicago office is still playing in the response to high levels of lead found in Flint's drinking water after the city switched water supplies.
It was EPA officials who learned that the state Department of Environmental Quality had not required corrosion treatments when Flint switched to using the Flint River for its water, resulting in lead leaching from aging pipes. The city has since switched back to Lake Huron water and is treating its water, though lead levels remain a concern.
“Closing the EPA’s regional office is misguided and would jeopardize federal resources to help Flint recover from the water crisis and protect the Great Lakes from harm," Kildee said.
The report comes at a time when the Trump administration's preliminary budget plans are already causing concerns as to what could happen to the EPA and its effect on the Midwest. As the Free Press previously reported, the budget calls for eliminating the $300 million annually spent on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a program that improves water quality and restores wetlands and wildlife habitat, as well as reduces pollution.
The EPA's Region 5 covers Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin and, under the plan as reported by the Sun-Times, it would be consolidated with Region 7, covering Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said he was "gravely concerned" with any effort to close the regional office, saying it "would be a disaster for the Great Lakes," presumably because it could potentially underminte the attention the Chicago office gives to regional priorities.
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, also reacted strongly to the report, saying, “If true, this report is shocking and I would strongly oppose" it.