With EPA Under Scrutiny, Will Great Lakes Get Forgotten?

Apr 9, 2018

The federal government has played a huge role in reviving the Great Lakes, but some in the region wonder how strong that support is these days.

For two straight years, the Trump administration proposed slashing funds for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Both times, Republicans and Democrats worked together to restore the $300 million allocation. That's the good news.

Now the EPA, a crucial partner in keeping the Great Lakes healthy, is in turmoil.

EPA director Scott Pruitt is under fire after ABC News found he had been paying to stay at a Washington condo owned by the wife of a lobbyist for energy companies. Some critics call it a sweetheart deal – $50 a night for the Capitol Hill space – but he defends it as similar to a room rental on Airbnb.com.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that the energy lobbyist's firm represented Enbridge Inc. of Canada. The Obama administration fined Enbridge $177 million for a petroleum pipeline spill in Michigan, but last year the EPA signed off on a pipeline expansion project by the company.

Enbridge is a familiar name in this region – it owns a controversial pipeline that runs underwater across the Straits of Mackinac, a narrow section of the Great Lakes. That pipeline, known as Line 5, is under scrutiny itself as environmental groups raise questions about its structural integrity. Enbridge says it is safe.

Now, Minnesota Public Radio reports that some environmental advocates are worried about the EPA official who oversees most of the Great Lakes region.  

EPA Region 5 administrator Cathy Stepp
Credit Associated Press

Region 5 administrator Cathy Stepp is the former head of Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources. Critics say her tenure in Wisconsin was marked by declines in enforcement actions and cuts to the agency's science personnel.

Stepp, a former homebuilder, heads the regional office that covers Ohio as well as Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. She told MPR she was proud of the Wisconsin agency's work in ensuring that businesses followed environmental regulations.

At the EPA, she says, her goals mesh with Pruitt's: "Promoting cooperative federalism, and being transparent and consistent with the application of the laws."

One thing's for sure: There will be a lot of people in the Great Lakes region watching Pruitt, Stepp and the EPA to make sure this crucial federal agency continues to protect the waters.