Advocates for Great Lakes hoping for investments to address coastlines, pollution, drinking water

By: - November 3, 2021 12:30 am

Small ephemeral waterfall flows into Lake Erie on Kelley’s Island. Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial on Ohio’s South Bass Island is on the background. Getty Images.

When Joe Biden became president in January of 2020, the Alliance for the Great Lakes made a list of five priorities they felt were needed for environmental investment programs in the Great Lakes. They are:

*Prioritize Environmental Justice: Low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by pollution.

*Increase Drinking Water & Wastewater Infrastructure Funding & Stop Water Shutoffs: Clean water is a basic need. No one should be without clean, safe, affordable water in their home.

*Fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative & Restore & Strengthen Clean Water Protections: The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) provides funding for on-the-ground restoration projects, from wetland restoration to cleaning up toxic hotspots, throughout the Great Lakes region.

* Fund Efforts to Stop Invasive Carp: Invasive carp pose a clear threat to the Great Lakes. Established populations of these fish are only 50 miles from Chicago and Lake Michigan. But it’s not too late to prevent them from reaching the lakes.

* Address Agricultural Pollution that Drives Harmful Algal Blooms: Nutrient pollution that fuels harmful algal blooms is a significant threat to the region’s drinking water, quality of life, and economic well-being.

The results of whether these issues will move their way to being fixed is still in the air, with the big unanswered question being how the cash flowing from Washington to a state like Ohio gets used. Ohio will get nearly $5.4 billion in aid as part of Biden’s larger $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, with another $6.6 billion going directly to 37 Ohio cities and all 88 counties as part of a $350 billion program created under the American Rescue Plan.

Uses for the first half must be decided by the end of January in 2022, and the rest by the end of 2024.

Much of how the local and state governments will use those funds before 2024 will also depend on how much funding is included in the infrastructure and reconciliation bills currently before Congress. There will be overlap of programs and which funds are being appropriated by the state or county or city, but there is no doubt that trillions of dollars of funding will have some impact.

And of course, some think the impact will be substantial, others think it will be negligible, and still others will maintain others got funding, but not them. But there are a few other items to keep an eye on as the sausage-making continues in Washington and Columbus.

The first is for $9.5 billion for Great Lakes restoration and coastal resilience. The program will aim to invest in coastal environments like seagrasses and marshes to be a buffer zone between the pollution that flows downstream and into the large bodies of water like Lake Erie. Nearly one-third of the bill’s spending would go toward reestablishing such features along coasts and in the Great Lakes. Those projects would aim to increase protection from sea-level rise, flooding and storms, while also providing better resilience to lakefront communities.

The reason this is important is that the Great Lakes has about 10,500 miles of coastline when the U.S. and Canada lakefronts are added together, with Lake Erie having about 870 miles of shoreline that includes the islands in the western part of the lake. Making the coasts cleaner has to do with the fact that about 35 million people in the Great Lakes basin rely on the lakes for their drinking water. 

Rep, Marcy Kaptur speaks the Womens Workers Rising Rally
Rep, Marcy Kaptur speaks the Womens Workers Rising Rally on March 8, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for V-Day).

The second program that will likely come before Congress is something U.S. Rep Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, is proposing setting up: a regional Great Lakes Authority. It  would not be unlike the Tennessee Valley Authority that was set up in 1933 under the New Deal, which began as a flood control agency but moved into infrastructure building and economic development among other things. The Greta Lakes Authority would include the eight U.S. states bordering the Great Lakes, and Ontario, Canada.

Kaptur, who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, said it would be a federally created economic development organization authorized to establish a regional infrastructure bank; set up a university research consortium; and house a U.S. Department of Energy’s research laboratory. The Great Lakes Authority would have a wide-ranging authority, and could help set up anything from a high speed rail line from Toronto to Chicago or regional clean hydrogen hubs for energy uses.

“There is a need for a large organization to handle infrastructure buildout, funding and management of the Great Lakes because our region does not have anything like that under the federal development umbrella,” said Kaptur, whose district stretches from Toledo to Cleveland’s western suburbs.

The third is for getting the lead out of homes and water lines. Much attention has been given to lead pipe issues in Flint and Benton Harbor, Michigan. But while the lead pipes are getting most of the attention, the lead paint in older urban neighborhood are perhaps more serious. In September, the JAMA Pediatric group published a research study where about half of children six and under (about 600,000 out of 1.1 million) tested positive for lead poisoning.

That study showed that 5% of Ohio kids have elevated blood lead levels, which is more than double the national average. Dr. Matthew Tien, a pediatrician at MetroHealth System in Cleveland, said even low levels of lead in the body can cause problems with growth, behavior and learning.

“Studies that have been done show that the higher the lead level, the more dramatic effect it can have on lowering IQ,” Tien explained. “Obviously, the higher the lead level, the more terrifying. But finding even a level of ‘one’ is significant. There’s no known safe level of lead.”

The problem with addressing this lead paint issue is that states like Ohio have larger problems with it given the old age of its housing, much older than in high population growth states like Arizona. Lead paint was banned in 1980, and more than two-thirds of Ohio’s homes were built before 1980 (3,580,000 or 67%), according to a study by the Ohio Housing Finance Agency. This includes 421,640 homes with young children present who are at risk of lead-based paint hazards.

The perception of this problem is much lower among either the Ohio legislature or U.S. Congress. The Ohio Senate removed $1.3 million to help fund housing lead removal training and certification in the state when the budget was reviewed this past summer. On the national side, the Biden Administration has proposed that $3 billion be set aside for 175,000 homes to be rehabbed for lead paint removal. 

To put the 175,000 homes in perspective, according to the National Center for Health Housing, these are the national lead paint stats: 37 million homes in the U.S. with lead paint, 23 million with deteriorated lead paint, 3.6 million homes with hazards and young children, and $2.5 billion annually for the next five years for the remediation of lead hazards in paint, soil and water.



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Daniel McGraw
Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a book author and freelance journalist in Lakewood, OH. He has written for The Bulwark, POLITICO, Next City, Daily Beast, and many others. Follow him @danmcgraw1.