Broad cuts to EPA could hurt Lake Erie. Panel discusses potential impact

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Broad cuts to EPA could hurt Lake Erie. Panel discusses potential impact

PORT CLINTON — With 30 percent of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s operating budget funded by the U.S. EPA, state EPA officials fear what might happen to Lake Erie and other parts of the Buckeye State if President Trump’s plan to gut national environmental programs gets through Congress.

Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler underscored that point at Monday’s quarterly meeting of the Ohio Lake Erie Commission, the state’s top decision-making body for the portion of Lake Erie under Ohio’s control.

His point: There’s far more at stake for Lake Erie than the U.S. EPA’s $300 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a relatively new program for many shovel-ready cleanup and restoration projects around the basin. Created by the Obama administration in 2009, the Trump administration has asked Congress to eliminate it.

Lesser known is the Trump administration’s plan to cut U.S. EPA funding by nearly a third, resulting in layoffs for 25 percent of that agency’s scientists and other staffers. If approved, that would mean the loss of more than 3,000 federal EPA employees.

The Ohio EPA has a $190 million annual budget. Greg Vergamini, the agency’s legislative affairs director, said relatively little of the total — about $10 million to $15 million — comes from the state’s general fund. Most comes from landfill tipping fees, fees that business pay for air pollution permits, and the U.S. EPA funding earmarked for specific purposes, he said.

Mr. Butler, the state lake commission’s chairman, told The Blade after the meeting that his agency would lose $13 million in federal funds if the Trump budget plan is approved by Congress and signed into law.

“I think we could absorb the impact in the short-term, but I don’t know for how long,” he said.

He added the state agency is now selective about filling vacated positions and would do its best to avoid layoffs within its 1,100-employee workforce but he offered no guarantees.

Cuts would invariably impact Lake Erie programs, he said, and possibly efforts made with other agencies to expand surveillance of toxic algae each summer for water-treatment plant operators.

“We haven’t done any of that triage yet,” Mr. Butler said. “We have core services that will need to be funded. There will need to be significant operational changes if we see significant reductions.”

Also at risk is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Sea Grant College program, which funds research programs in 33 states that border the oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Great Lakes. In Ohio, it is a large source of funding for Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island near Put-in-Bay, which coordinates many of the Great Lakes region’s top algae projects.

Chris Winslow, Ohio Sea Grant and Stone Lab director, said he was encouraged by a June 29 vote made by a U.S. House subcommittee to keep funding for Sea Grant programs intact. The Trump administration wants to eliminate it.

Also at Monday’s meeting:

  • Travis Hartman, an Ohio Division of Wildlife administrator in his first year as Lake Erie program director, said western Lake Erie is poised for one of its biggest walleye catches this summer and likewise expects a strong harvest of yellow perch. The walleye prediction is based on one of the largest classes of walleye being just under allowable catch length last year.
     
  • David Emerman, who earlier this year became the lake commission’s first lawyer in charge of developing beneficial uses for dredged material, said efforts along the Lake Erie shoreline are focused on rebuilding wetlands and developing soil-like products. The goal is to have the latter used in anything from backyard gardens to major farms. Two Ohio nurseries sell some blended material, and the Maumee-based Andersons is interested in learning more, according to Mr. Emerman, a former lawyer from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.

Blends are 65 percent compost, 30 percent dredged silt or topsoil, and 5 percent sand, he said. A newly developed research center in North Toledo, near Jamie Farr Park, is showing great promise. No seeds have been planted yet in the foot or two of dredged silt deposited there, yet wildflowers and weeds are growing. This summer is the second and final one that silt will be deposited there, but officials already are encouraged by what they’ve seen, Mr. Emerman said.

The efforts were inspired by a law the Ohio General Assembly passed on behalf of the Kasich administration to have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers end its practice of open-lake disposal by 2020. The sediment, which needs to be dug up annually to keep shipping channels open in Toledo and other ports along Lake Erie, contains farm nutrients. Scientists believe the practice has contributed to growth of algal blooms.

Originally Posted on July 11, 2017 By Tom Henry, BLADE STAFF WRITER toledoblade.com. Public domain photo courtesy Alex Grichenko. Contact Tom Henry at thenry@theblade.com, 419-724-6079 or via Twitter @ecowriterohio.

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