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EPA seeks public's input on Great Lakes as report describes continuing environmental problems
16 July 2009

Lake Ontario

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - Federal officials are preparing for a series of public meetings to discuss President Barack Obama's initiative to restore the Great Lakes, an ecosystem battered by invasive species, toxic pollution and other problems.

Beginning Tuesday in Milwaukee, the Environmental Protection Agency will describe the initiative and take public comment in eight cities across the region.

"The president has made restoring the Great Lakes a national priority, so this is an opportunity to explain that commitment," Cameron Davis, senior adviser to EPA chief Lisa Jackson, said Wednesday.

Davis, former president of the advocacy group Alliance for the Great Lakes, was appointed last month to oversee implementation of the program.

Obama requested $475 million in his 2010 budget for the lakes project. A bill to provide full funding has cleared the House, while the Senate Appropriations Committee has approved $400 million.

Among its goals: cleaning up contaminated river bottoms, restoring wildlife habitat, preventing runoff and erosion, and preventing more exotic invasive species from entering the ecosystems.

EPA staff members will refine the plan based on comments during the meetings, Davis said.

"They will help form a more effective road map for restoring the Great Lakes," he said. "It's not just a matter of the federal government doing its share; it's a multi-way street. We want to hear from the public about their concerns."

Obama aides have described his plan as a first step toward eventual completion of a $20 billion restoration proposed by government agencies and nonprofit groups in 2005.

About $147 million of the money proposed for 2010 would clean up river sediment contaminated with toxins.

Other spending would go to habitat and wildlife protection and restoration; prevention of near-shore pollution such as farm runoff and erosion; invasive species protections; and monitoring the initiative's progress.

Advocates said Wednesday that a U.S.-Canadian report released last month underscored the need for a comprehensive restoration.

The biennial "State of the Great Lakes" report described the ecosystem's status as "mixed." While the invasive species problem is worsening, it said, lakes are getting less of the toxic pollution that limited reproduction of birds, fish and mammals in previous decades.

For several other categories, the report said there was too little information to determine whether the lakes are getting better, worse or staying about the same.

Among them were the condition of coastal zones and aquatic habitat; human health factors such as drinking water quality and contaminant levels in game fish; and the status of tiny organisms in the aquatic food web.

The report was based on scientific data presented at the State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference last October in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

"In general, the trends are basically unchanging" from the previous report, said Paul Horvatin, chief of monitoring indicators and reporting in EPA's Great Lakes program office.

That means the lakes' problems are not being solved, said Jeff Skelding, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, a collection of groups lobbying for the cleanup.

"This report clearly shows the need for Congress to act to restore the Great Lakes," Skelding said. "Toxic pollution, invasive species and climate change threaten not only our health and quality of life, but the region's economy."
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