Last month, the Donald Trump administration announced that they plan to cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency by up to 31% and to essentially eliminate the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Should the president make good on this proposal, both the economy and ecology of the state of Michigan could sustain serious damage.
Every year, around 16,000 chemical spills from trucks, trains, and storage tanks occur, often polluting valuable resources and potentially causing harm to countless animals. Back in 1965, chemical sludge being held by unlined wastewater lagoons spilled into a stream that empties into Muskegon Lake — a body of water very close to Lake Michigan. Millions of dollars in government funding were eventually used to clean up that lake and restore it, but not before fish were poisoned with chemicals and petroleum.
Now, the same funding that saved Muskegon Lake is threatened by Trump’s 2018 “skinny budget” proposal, which would completely slash the funds given to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative from $300 million to nothing.
Kathy Evans has seen the good of the GLRI firsthand. Her father regularly caught fish in Muskegon Lake after the spill, but he would throw them back when the chemical stench was too much to bear. Now, as the environmental program manager for West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission, Evans knows how important it is to protect the planet’s most valuable resources.
“I am grateful that we have the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative,” said Evans to Crain’s Detroit Business. “We are finally able to remove the toxic mud from our lakes and streams and make the needed improvements to the quality of our water, fish and wildlife, communities and economy.”
Of course, it’s not just toxic spills that threaten the earth. It’s estimated that 1 million birds, 100,000 turtles, and countless other sea animals die every year by ingesting plastic and other waste. The average American will actually generate up to four pounds of trash every day, and inevitably some of that waste will end up in the environment.
In the Great Lakes region, it’s often the water, mud, and sediment that’s poisoned by such pollution, threatening lives both wild and human.
A failure to provide federal funding for these efforts could also present a financial crisis for the region.
“The issue isn’t just about the environmental benefits, it’s economic,” said Cameron Davis, vice president of environmental engineering firm GEI Consultants Inc. “[GLRI] is significant for coastal communities that endured a long legacy of pollution; making sure those areas are restored ecologically, but also to make them prime destination spots, increased tourism and a lot of other economic benefits.”
Davis went on to say, “The upper Midwest is so critical in so many ways; having these areas cleaned up is good policy. In this case, what’s good for the environment is good for the tax base. I’ve always told our legislators that [GLRI] is small-case environment and upper-case economy.”
The positive economic impact of cleanup efforts is well-documented, too. Even the smaller portions of Muskegon Lake that were cleaned up before GLRI took effect brought benefits for the region. In 2009, a $10 million grant from the Troubled Asset Relief Program led to an ROI that was 6.6 times that amount. In removing toxic sediment from the shoreline, property values in the area increased by $12 million, which added $600,000 to the annual tax revenue. The efforts also brought 65,000 more tourists to the lake.
If budget cuts took effect, it would be up to state leaders and local residents to clean up the Great Lakes without any federal help. But, already, some local kids are doing their part to make a difference.
In Alpena, two members of a new group called Plastics FLOAT (an acronym for “For the Love of Alpena Today”) recently traveled to local restaurants to warn about the dangers of plastic waste.
Ten-year-old Sylvie Luther said, “We’re trying to inform people about Zero Waste Week. We’re asking the restaurants to not give people straws unless they ask for them.”
Why straws? They’re among the most harmful and most common types of marine debris, says Luther.
Zero Waste Week is intended to show the public how small changes can help improve the state of the planet. Sydney Silver added that she hopes her efforts will help change some minds, especially for the sake of kids in the future.
“I want to protect younger generations from what other people are putting out there for our generation to fix,” she told The Alpena News. “I don’t want my sister to deal with an ocean with a bunch of litter.”
While these small changes might not seem to be as effective as multi-million-dollar cleanup efforts, they are a reminder that it takes a village. Even Michigan residents who are decidedly pro-Trump are uneasy about the proposed cuts to the EPA.
Candace Miller, Macomb County Public Works commissioner and former Republican U.S. representative, said, “I am in support of many of the things Trump is trying to do, but this is a principal advocacy of mine. This is a really small amount of money, really, and it’s of great significance to the states that voted for him. These states can’t absorb [this cut]. This is a time where I hope the president will reconsider.”