By Garret Ellison

A U.S. House budget committee has released legislation that restores $300 million in Great Lakes funding eliminated under President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal.

The fiscal 2018 Interior and Environment Appropriations bill released by the House appropriations committee on Tuesday, July 11 contains annual money for Great Lakes toxic sediment removal and invasive species management that was in jeopardy under a White House budget that cut deeply into environmental programs.

The appropriations bill must still be voted on in committee, by the full House and the U.S. Senate, but inclusion of the Great Lakes money in bill, one of several that would fund the government starting Oct. 1, has buoyed regional advocates concerned about the potential loss of the popular Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).

House floor action on the bill hasn’t been scheduled yet, but inclusion of the money in the bill is a major step toward survival of a program that environmental quality agencies say has improved the ecological health of Great Lakes tributaries, estuaries and ecosystems in several battleground states won by Trump in the 2016 election.

The White House said states ought to be responsible for the Great Lakes program costs although states have argued the sheer scope of the work is beyond their ability to fund. In Michigan, the Department of Environmental Quality says the GLRI elimination, as well as wider cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, would hurt pollution cleanup, monitoring and enforcement.

The GLRI has what’s called standalone authorization, which allows Congress to specifically direct the EPA to spend the $300 million on Great Lakes protection.

“The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative does vital work across Michigan to protect the Great Lakes and the streams, rivers and lakes that run into them,” said U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, a Michigan Republican on the House appropriations committee.

“I worked hard to ensure this important priority for our state is funded in today’s legislation.”

The bill restores $1.9 billion of Trump’s proposed $2.4 billion cut to the EPA, which had been facing a funding reduction by a third.

Trump’s EPA budget proposal got pushback from Republicans in the House, who spoke against cuts to regional programs in their districts when Trump’s EPA administrator Scott Pruitt defended the budget proposal in Congressional hearings.

Ohio delegates, David Joyce, a Republican, and Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat, defended the GRLI during a June 15 meeting with Pruitt, saying the money is integral to protecting drinking water and promoting economic development along Lake Erie, which is being plagued each summer by harmful algal blooms that turn the lake the color and consistency of green paint during severe outbreaks.

Both legislators sit on the House Appropriations subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, where the bill will be taken up Wednesday.

Kaptur called Trump’s proposed budget “draconian.”

“It is still beyond me why the president, whose political fortune is so tied to the Great Lakes states, would gut funding for such a valuable environmental and economic resource as the Great Lakes,” she said.

Joyce said that “it is incumbent that the Great Lakes legislators continue to do the heavy lifting to protect it.”

“We have staved off elimination, but, this is just the first step in a long battle to the finish line to protect 20 percent of the world’s fresh water,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga of Michigan called the bill a “critical first step” in the budget process and the “health and vitality of the Great Lakes are instrumental to sustaining economic growth in Michigan and across the entire Great Lakes region.”

The budget bill, while friendly to Great Lakes funding, reflects what the committee calls “the Administration’s goal to rein in outdated, unnecessary and potentially harmful regulations at the EPA.”

To that end, the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, a collection of nonprofits groups that advocates for the GLRI in Washington, was circumspect about the Great Lakes funding, saying the $300 million “properly rejects many of the cuts contained in the administration’s disastrous budget,” but also “continues to cut core programs as well as agencies like the EPA charged with implementing Great Lakes restoration,” said coalition chair Todd Ambs.

“That is the wrong tact to take, because serious threats remain and our work is not done if we want to fully restore the lakes and protect our drinking water, public health, jobs, and way of life,” he said.

EPA administrator Pruitt, a major advocate of the U.S. leaving the Paris Climate Agreement and former Oklahoma attorney general known for suing the EPA over fossil fuels regulations before being tapped to lead the agency, has been working in earnest to undo many Obama-era regulations — although the federal courts dealt him a setback last week in a bid to suspend an EPA limit on methane emissions from new oil and gas wells.

The bill includes support for a plan to reduce the EPA workforce by a third through buyouts and attrition, as well as language authorizing Pruitt to withdraw the controversial Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which sought to expand Clean Water Act protections to wetlands and tributaries that feed the country’s largest rivers.

The bill keeps $11 million for the independent Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which investigates industrial chemical accidents, that the White House had proposed to eliminate.

It also rejects Trump’s proposed 30 percent cut in the EPA Superfund program, allocating the regular $1.1 billion for the program that cleans up the nation’s most toxic contamination sites; 65 of which are in Michigan.

The bill includes $863 million for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, the same amount as allotted this fiscal year. It trims the Clean Water State Revolving Fund from $1.39 billion this year to $1.14 billion in 2018.

The bill also funds the Department of the Interior, including the National Park Service (NPS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Smithsonian Institution.

The USGS, FWS, BLM and Park Service budgets are trimmed by $46 million, $38 million, $46 million, and $64 million from 2017 levels, respectively, under the bill.

The bill also includes language that would strip federal protection for gray wolves in the Great Lakes region and Wyoming. The bill says the Interior Department may not spend any money “to treat any gray wolf in any of the 48 contiguous states” as “an endangered species or threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.”

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