As the U.S. EPA prepares to expand its Great Lakes Restoration Initiative with the $1 billion infrastructure bill windfall, Ojibwe Tribe Executive Michael “Mic” Isham has the vision to strengthen the program.
Isham wants to put more emphasis on protecting the Great Lakes with a priority for Lake Superior, which Isham says is the “cultural and historical center” of the Ojibwe tribes.
While he doesn’t oppose restoration, Isham said he is a firm believer in protection and wants this increased attention to help stem the degradation of Lake Superior, which he says is underway. and threatens the lake with “death by 1,000 cuts”.
Isham is executive director of Indian Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Commission, representing 11 Ojibwe tribes from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. He made his remarks at a Great Lakes restoration workshop for environmental journalists sponsored by the nonprofit organization Institute of Journalism and Natural Resources.
He asked the US EPA, which is responsible for the restoration initiative, to incorporate “protection” into the title of the program, making it the Great Lakes Restoration and Protection Initiative. He also wants greater flexibility from the GLRI to deal with cleanup areas that may not be eligible for restoration funding.
Overreliance on metrics
Isham commended GLRI, especially in its early stages, for providing capacity funding that enabled tribes to be present as the program grew. He also served on an official Advisory Board who made recommendations to the EPA on restoration, which gave him a seat at the table while action plans were developed.
But he cited the initiative’s overreliance on metrics to demonstrate results as a hurdle tribes must overcome when seeking funding.
Metrics — like acres of habitat restored or cubic yards of toxic sediment removed — drive programs and have been presented to Congress to justify funding. Isham said tribal projects tend to incorporate Seventh Generationnot principles and traditional ecological knowledge that don’t easily produce short-term results but are valuable nonetheless.
To address tribal concerns, in 2020 Congress led the creation of a specific initiative, Distinct Tribal Programming“to support tribal priorities that are consistent with GLRI’s goals and objectives.”
The DTP offered the tribes the opportunity to obtain funding that may not have been available, Indian Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Commission political analyst Jen Vanator told Great Lakes Now.
the program allows tribes to submit proposals for “holistic programs that directly address the priorities of their communities,” Vanator said. But while DTP is useful, it’s not a complete relief from metric reporting, according to Vanator, who said tribes aren’t the only ones concerned.
“Many of our state agency partners that we work closely with in the Lake Superior Basin are very concerned about the degradation of Lake Superior ecosystems – particularly in the face of climate change – and have worked with us to try to find measures that can link protection activities to the GLRI that can potentially feature in the next action plan,” Vanator said.
An example cited by Vanator in the need for more flexibility in the program is the Buffalo Reef area of the Keweenaw Peninsula that is plagued by copper mine tailings.
Vanator said degradation in areas like Buffalo Reef “has a significant impact on the health of Lake Superior’s ecosystem,” but because they’re not on the EPA’s list List of areas of concernthey are not eligible for restoration funding.
“The problem is well documented, solutions have been formulated, but the price tag is setting the EPA back,” Vanator said.
Michigan Technical University Professor and environmental historian Nancy Langston agrees with the tribes on the need for more emphasis on prevention and program flexibility.
Langston said she understands the importance of the steps needed to secure bipartisan congressional support for GLRI.
“But sometimes it can reduce the chances of funding other equally important projects that are less ready to go and might have more difficulty quantifying results. I would like to see more focus on preventing future environmental cleanups and protecting key habitats before they degrade,” Langston said, adding, “It’s still much, much cheaper to avoid toxic waste than to clean it up decades later.
The original list of toxic sites remains the priority
As a nonprofit advocate, Chicago-based consultant Cameron Davis lobbied for Great Lakes restoration in Washington and, in 2009, was appointed to coordinate GLRI within the US EPA. Obama administration when implementation began.
Davis told Great Lakes Now the first priority should continue to clean up areas of concern from the initial list, but acknowledged the need to address toxic sites like Buffalo Reef.
“There are a lot of places around the Great Lakes that could have been AOCs but aren’t on the list,” Davis said. He cited the number of sites as a barrier.
Davis recommends that the EPA incorporate non-AOC sites into a future remediation plan.
The EPA recognized the needs of toxic areas that are not AOCs, but echoed Davis’s sentiment that the focus should be on AOCs identified by the United States and Canada that remain on the list. original from 1987.
EPA spokesperson Taylor Gillespie told Great Lakes Now that the agency funded the cleanup of some non-AOC toxic sites and cited Buffalo Reef as an example.
“We are certainly aware of Buffalo Reef and the difficult issues there, and the EPA has been actively involved in the Buffalo Reef Task Force for several years. Although Buffalo Reef is not an AOC, approximately $9 million of GLRI money has been directed to this site to remove buffer sands from Grand Traverse Harbor and a trough near the reef,” said Gillespie.
Regarding the Tribal Governments’ Commitment to Traditional Ecological Knowledge and the Distinct Tribal Program, Taylor said, “The EPA has worked closely with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Great Lakes Tribal Governments to develop a Distinct Tribal Program within the framework of the GLRI”.
The program states that agencies involved in GLRI “will work with tribal governments in the spirit of self-determination, maximum flexibility and in accordance with Federal Indian fiduciary responsibilities to support tribal priorities that are consistent with the aims and objectives of GLRI,” it said. said Gillespie.
Gillespie said that in fiscal year 2020, GLRI supported approximately 70 tribal projects with an estimated amount of $12 million.
On other GLRI matters, Gillespie said the EPA plans to release its roadmap for accelerating the cleanup and delisting of AOCs using infrastructure bill funding within a month.
She said the cost of cleaning up and deleting AOCs could be as high as $2 billion.
The Detroit River Area of Concern still contains about 3.5 million cubic meters of toxic sediment, and Gillespie said the estimated cost to remove the sediment, restore habitat and conduct assessments is between $100 million and $200 million. dollars.
Earlier, the EPA said removal of toxic sediment in the river was on track to be complete by 2030. Rick Hobrla, AOC director for the Department of the Environment, Great Lakes and Michigan Energy told Great Lakes Now that the EPA’s 2030 date was “very optimistic.”
Dealing with the remediation of contaminated sediments is complex and “there are many more things that can go wrong than things that can go right,” Hobrla said.
Catch more news at Great Lakes Now:
Your Federal Taxes: How They Fund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative
Q&A: New EPA Great Lakes Administrator Talks Benton Port, Infrastructure and AOC Cleanup
Featured Image: Shoreline of Lake Superior off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (Great Lakes Now Episode 1006)