The Bush task force's $20 billion proposal would be largest environmental cleanup in U.S. history.
WASHINGTON - A task force appointed by President Bush issued a preliminary blueprint Thursday on how to restore the Great Lakes - a $20 billion, five-year plan that would be the largest environmental cleanup project in U.S. history.
The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration's draft proposal calls for $13.7 billion to upgrade sewers and reduce wastewater pollution that closes beaches and disrupts the ecology of the lakes; and $2.25 billion to clean up 31 of the worst toxic sediment sites.
The report also urges Congress to require ocean-going ships to treat ballast water before discharging it into the lakes to combat invasive species.
"We need some help," said James Wohlford, 70, who captains a 28-foot charter fishing boat on Lake Huron.
"Between the fish declining due to invasive species and the bad economy, I'm doing only about 25 percent of the business I did five years ago," said Wohlfold. He said the salmon he catches have dropped from 30 pounds to 10 pounds largely because invasive species have upset the food chain.
The $20 billion proposal faces a tough road ahead in Congress, which is dealing with record federal budget deficits, as well as in cash-strapped Great Lakes states such as Michigan. The proposal envisions $14 billion coming from the federal government and the rest from Great Lakes states and communities.
U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, plans to incorporate many of the task force's recommendations into legislation.
"Twenty billion dollars is what I suspect it will cost," said Ehlers. "It is a huge number. But recognize we are talking about spending $300 billion over six years for our highway system."
The report also calls for up to $188 million annually to restore 550,000 acres of wetlands, $20 million annually to boost native fish populations, and $40 million annually to purchase and improve riverside areas that can absorb pollution. It also wants $40 million annually for incentives to private landowners to protect habitats and wildlife.
But the report avoided a few contentious issues - such as containing mercury pollution from coal-powered electric-generating plants. Nor does the report take into account Canadian efforts to restore and protect the lakes.
The task force - which includes the Environmental Protection Agency, government officials from the Great Lakes states, Indian tribes, and environmental and business groups - plans to hold five hearings to gather public comment before releasing its final report Dec. 12
By far the most expensive problem to resolve is sewage overflows into the Great Lakes from outdated sewer systems such as many of those in Metro Detroit. In 2004, Michigan alone had 932 releases of raw or partially treated sewage, totalling 27 billion gallons, according to the Public Interest Research Group in Michigan, an environmental group. The $13.7 billion - $7.5 billion from the federal government and $6.2 billion in matching state funds - would help cities contain sewage during heavy rains and fix cracking pipes.
"What we are doing now is a Third World approach to treating sewage," says Mike Shriberg, an expert on the Great Lakes at PIRGIM who worked on the task force.
Great Lakes states saw a 32 percent increase in beach closings between 2002 and 2003, the most recent data available. In 2003, there were 1,854 beach closures in the eight Great Lakes states.
You can reach Deb Price at (202) 906-8205 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Deb Price / Detroit News Washington Bureau