Barack Obama and Joe Biden have promised $5 billion in new federal funds to “jumpstart” Great Lakes restoration as the centerpiece of the Obama/Biden Great Lakes plan. The $5 billion would be used for sewage system repairs, toxic cleanups, and wetlands restoration. Other components of the Obama/Biden Great Lakes plan include reducing toxic pollution (especially mercury emissions), “taking more aggressive steps” to stop the spread of invasive species, and supporting implementation of the Great Lakes compact. Obama would also designate a “Great Lakes Coordinator” within the U.S. EPA.
Obama/Biden should be congratulated for putting something on the table for Great Lakes restoration. Their campaign seems to be listening to Great Lakes advocates and responding with something better for the lakes than the status quo. In contrast, the McCain/Palin campaign hasn’t yet offered anything beyond supporting the Great Lakes compact. That said, it’s still important to take a critical look at the details of the Obama/Biden Great Lakes plan.
For starters, the $5 billion is desperately needed, but it’s only a fraction of the estimated $20 billion that it would actually cost to repair our region’s sewer infrastructure, remediate toxic hotspots, and restore coastal habitat. Obama/Biden would get the $5 billion by “rolling back tax breaks and loopholes for big oil and gas companies” (a simple carbon tax would be more efficient and effective, but that’s another issue). Their plan doesn’t say how the $5 billion would be allocated among competing restoration priorities or what agencies would administer the funding. Still, $5 billion for Great Lakes restoration will sound nice to voters in Michigan, Ohio, and other Great Lakes swing states, a point the Washington Post focused on in its coverage of Obama’s proposal.
Aside from the cash, the most promising part of the Obama/Biden plan is the commitment to addressing toxic pollution. Specifically, they promise to more strictly regulate mercury emissions under the Clean Air Act, something that the Bush administration has undermined for the past eight years. This is a critical public health issue in our region important to anglers, children’s advocates, and younger voters. Further, as coal-fired power plants are a major source of mercury emissions, this commitment complements the Obama/Biden plan to transition to renewable energy technologies.
The rest of the Obama/Biden plan is less impressive. I agree that we must take “more aggressive steps” to prevent invasive species from coming into the Great Lakes, but all of the specific actions noted in the plan (regulating ballast water discharges, using electric barriers, funding education and research) are already happening. The Obama/Biden plan for addressing invasive species doesn’t offer anything that’s not already being done by the states or being won through citizen lawsuits. The plan touts a “zero tolerance policy for invasive species” but fails to say what that policy would be. I would like to see Senators Obama and Biden join their Democratic colleagues Sen. Russ Feingold and Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, who have suggested a moratorium on overseas ships entering the Great Lakes until treatment technology is available to stop diseases and invasive species from spreading.
I’m also very skeptical of the Obama/Biden proposal to “designate a Great Lakes Coordinator” in the U.S. EPA. According to their plan, the new “Great Lakes Coordinator” is needed “to prioritize coordination of Federal, State and Local Agencies’ agendas, policies, expertise, funds and staff.” Designating a senior level “Coordinator” to “prioritize coordination” means creating a new federal bureaucrat to coordinate the work of other federal bureaucrats. Even more problematic, the proposal seems to suggest that this new EPA bureaucrat will have some control over the agendas, staffs, and funds of state and local governments. The proposal does not explain how or why other agencies will follow the priorities set by a new EPA Great Lakes Coordinator. Further, the Obama/Biden plan is basically proposing to create what already exists: the US EPA has a Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago with a staff of 46 and a budget of almost $15 million. If local, state, and federal agencies are not working together on Great Lakes protection, it’s not for lack of EPA Great Lakes bureaucracy.
Finally, while I appreciate Barack Obama’s support for the Great Lakes compact as both a senator and Presidential candidate (it’s a prominent part of the Obama/Biden plan), this in no way differentiates him from Sen. John McCain, who also strongly supports the Great Lakes compact. It’s also a bit of an overstatement for the Obama/Biden plan to claim that Sen. Obama “is a key leader” on the Great Lakes compact. He co-sponsored the compact approval legislation along with every other senator from the eight Great Lakes states (16 senators in all), and presumably supported it when it passed the Senate by unanimous consent. But give him credit for recognizing a good thing and getting on board with it.
These minor criticisms aside, Obama/Biden should be acknowledged for their commitment to Great Lakes protection. Their plan may lack some details and have some minor flaws, but I like that the campaign is focusing on important regional environmental issues. Hopefully, the McCain/Palin campaign will make a similar effort. The millions of voters in important swing states that care deeply about the Great Lakes could decide this election.