The Obama Administration proposal for funding the Great Lakes, known as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), has cleared a key House-Senate conference committee. The legislation would provide $475 million for a comprehensive Great Lakes restoration and protection initiative. The funding would be targeted toward the most critical environmental concerns facing the Great Lakes, including invasive species, toxic sediments, non point source pollutants and wildlife habitat loss.
While its wonderful news that increased funding is being directed toward the Great Lakes, there are key components of the legislation that could leave a large portion of the federal money unspent. Those key components relates to clean up of contaminated sediment under the Legacy Act (the primary vehicle for providing federal funding for removal of sediments).
A recent U.S. EPA Inspector General Report was highly critical of the pace of clean up under the Legacy Act.
Contaminated sediment is a massive problem in the Great Lakes. There is an estimated 75 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment. To date, under the Legacy Act, five sediment projects have been completed removing 800,000 cubic yards of contamination. This represents about 1% of the problem. As stated in the report, at the current pace, it would take more than 77 years to complete all the contaminated sediment projects in the Great Lakes.
Now this is where I part ways with the Inspector General Report. The IG placed the blame for the slow pace of contaminated sediment clean up on the lack of management within the Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO). The real story is the lack of resources at the state and local level.
Cost of removal of contaminated sediment is estimated at $3 billion in federal, state, and local funds. The Legacy Act includes the requirement for a 35% local share before federal funds can be used for clean up.
Sediment projects carry large price tags. Even a small sediment project can cost millions of dollars. While at least five project have been able to cobble together required 35% match, in some cases it took 5-10 years to generate the funds. In many other instances there are simply not the resources to develop the required 35% match.
The inability to generate this level of funding can be attributed to:
- Limited amount of companies with money to pursue who contributed to the contaminated sediment problem (known as PRPs);
- Even if PRPs are identified, complex legal actions or settlements must be pursued which can slow the process for years;
- Furthermore, the current strain on local and state governments due to economic considerations, especially in the Midwest, makes state/local funding unlikely
As long as the millions in funding for sediment clean up in GLRI includes the 35% local share requirement, major portions of the federal money could remain sitting unused. Statutory changes to the Legacy Act are needed to provide authority to waive or reduce the 35% local share if it can be demonstrated, for instance that:
- There are no or few PRPs;
- The project should be fast tracked based on human health or environmental risks:
- Local or State governments are constrained on their ability to contribute more of the local share