Deep Proposed Budget Cuts Would Scrap EPA's Great Lakes Cleanup

"Federal funding has gone up and down over the years, but I’ve never seen anything of this scope"

If President Donald Trump's proposed budget is passed in its current form, funding to monitor and clean up toxins in the Great Lakes would virtually disappear. 

In Trump's preliminary budget, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) would be slashed by 97 percent, dropping from $300 million to about $10 million. The Environmental Protection Agency is the single-largest financer of the GLRI. If the EPA funding is slashed as proposed, scientists’ ability to measure toxins in the water would be “greatly diminished,” said longtime Lake Erie researcher Jeff Reutter.

That money goes to programs like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Sea Grant College Program, which monitor toxin levels via satellite images and scientists' daily trips to buoys on Lake Erie.

“Federal funding has gone up and down over the years, but I’ve never seen anything of this scope,” Reutter said of the proposed cuts. He has been working on Lake Erie since 1971.  

Trump has vowed to roll back many environmental regulations enacted by former President Barack Obama. He proposed to cut about 25 percent of the EPA's budget and slash about 3,000 jobs, or 19 percent of the agency’s staff, according to the budget outline released in late February.

Environmental justice programs and the climate protection budget would be cut by 79 percent and nearly 70 percent, respectively.

Trump and his EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, have made skeptical comments about climate change. Trump once called climate change a "hoax." Before Pruitt became the EPA’s new leader, he sued the agency more than a dozen times as the attorney general of Oklahoma.

During his presidential campaign, Trump said that he is a proponent for clean water. On his campaign website, he called the need for safe drinking water one of the "real environmental challenges," as opposed to "phony ones." 

The Great Lakes make up about 95 percent of the U.S.’s freshwater supply, and about 20 percent of the world’s freshwater, according to the EPA. The lakes’ contamination could lead to economic and health consequences. 

“If we lose the U.S. EPA, if the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative goes away, if NOAA’s satellite program goes away, so does our ability to manage all of the fresh water in the country," Reutter said. "I would be very concerned for human and environmental health. We know how important it is to protect human health, environmental health, coastal citizens and jobs.”

Molly Flanagan, the vice president of Alliance for the Great Lakes, said that without funding multiple threats would arise: halted clean-up of the lakes and beaches, the inability to detect and warn people of water toxicity and the potential invasion of ocean-based aquatic species. 

The proposed budget cut to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is the worst possible scenario, carrying "devastating impacts," Flanagan said.

"If you were to see cuts, you would see a number of GLRI programs grind to a stop," she said. "Thirty million people depend on the Great Lakes for drinking water, jobs and recreation."

Despite this, she said she is hopeful that Congress will step in and fight for the restoration initiative, which has historically had bipartisan support.

Two senators from across the aisle are fighting the proposed budget cuts to the lakes, their offices told NBC.

Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat, was just named to a subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Safe Drinking Water Act and other critical issues. Sean Savett, a spokesperson for Duckworth, said she would fight the proposed budget cuts to the Great Lakes.

"Sen. Duckworth is urging the administration to prioritize funding for programs that protect the Great Lakes from pollutants and invasive species,” Savett said. “The Great Lakes are a vital source of clean drinking water for tens of millions of Americans and dismantling the EPA would jeopardize the safety of families across Illinois and the entire country.”

Republican Sen. Rob Portman, of Ohio, also plans to continue to fight for the Great Lakes funding.

“This initiative has been a successful tool in our efforts to help protect and restore Lake Erie, and Rob will continue to fight for it just as he did when the Obama administration proposed cuts to the program,” spokesman Kevin Smith said.

The EPA declined to comment. The White House did not immediately respond to NBC's request for comment. 

The EPA declined to comment. The White House did not immediately respond to NBC's request for comment. 

Former EPA leader Gina McCarthy said the cuts to the EPA prioritize the special interests of big businesses.

“It shows the Trump administration doesn’t hold the same American values for clean air, clean water and healthy land as the vast majority of its citizens,” she said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Scientists like Reutter worry that with a drop in federal investment, the country could see a return to the 1960s, 1970s condition of the Great Lakes, when they were contaminated with industrial waste.

The EPA, NOAA and the National Sea Grant College Program, like the one Reutter works for at Ohio State University, have provided information about toxic algae blooms that build up as a result of high levels of phosphorus in the water.

Most of the blooms that form today are from agricultural runoff, but historically they have also been caused by poor sewage.

The industrial waste from the 1960s and 70s, such as PCBs, mercury and metals, has seen improvements in recent decades, but the issue of blooms remains. According to Reutter’s estimates, to reduce the imminent threat caused by blooms, phosphorus levels in the lakes need to be reduced about 40 percent.

Next week, more than 100 Great Lakes advocates will make their annual trip to Capitol Hill to meet with members of Congress. This year, they will urge them to push back on the Trump administration's cuts. While the president proposes the budget, it is up to Congress to revise and pass it. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, 2017.

Flanagan said that they're ready to counter the threatening cuts.

"We're not gonna go down without a fight," she said.

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