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Audit finds mix of successes, problems with Great Lakes restoration grants

Volunteers picking up trash from the Rogue River
Volunteers clean up trash along the Rouge River, one of several Michigan waterways designated as “areas of concern” because of pollution and degradation. (Bridge photo by Kelly House)
  • The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has funneled billions into river cleanups and habitat projects throughout the region.
  • A new audit finds it has met many of the EPA’s goals, while sometimes overlooking environmental justice.
  • That’s important because minority and poor communities are more likely to suffer harm from polluted waterways.

The federal government’s premiere Great Lakes restoration program has improved the health of rivers and lakes across the region, but has sometimes overlooked environmental justice goals, according to a new audit from a federal watchdog.

The report issued Monday by the EPA Office of Inspector General assesses the performance of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a funding program created in 2010 mainly to speed cleanups of contaminated industrial sites that had turned lakes and rivers toxic, putrid and flammable.

It’s largely “good news,” said Danielle Tesch, an auditor in the EPA Office of Inspector General.


In its 14 years, the GLRI has devoted more than $3.7 billion to thousands of projects across the region. The money has improved habitat and reduced pollution in contaminated “areas of concern,” such as the Detroit and Kalamazoo rivers and Torch Lake in the western Upper Peninsula. 


It has done so by awarding grants to outside groups that conduct cleanup, restoration and other work. But while those grant winners have excelled in many areas, they haven’t always prioritized environmental justice — that is, making sure that cleanups benefit the poor and minority communities that suffer the most from the region’s pollution problems.

The Inspector General reviewed 30 grants for GLRI projects ending in 2019, finding that the projects helped protect habitat, cut pollution and combat invasive species. But payoff on environmental justice goals was less clear.

Grant recipients had a choice in whether to prioritize environmental justice. Auditors found fewer than half of them did so. Among that group, fewer than a third reported reaching their goals. Some neglected to detail their successes and failures when they submitted grant reports to the EPA.

Officials within the EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office did not follow up on the missing information.

Auditors also noted that the EPA sometimes failed to submit annual reports to Congress in a timely manner. It’s the second audit in less than a year to note deficiencies with GLRI’s grant tracking.

“There's room for improvement to capture these types of results and track and monitor those types of results,” said Tesch. 

But the findings relate to grants made during the Trump administration, which was notably less concerned about environmental justice, said Laura Rubin, executive director of the restoration advocacy group Healing Our Waters – Great Lakes Coalition.

Things have since changed, she said. For instance, the Biden administration has placed special emphasis on using federal money to address the unfair harm that people of color and low-income people endure from pollution and environmental degradation.  

“That really put a stake in the ground that this is a priority,” she said.

Still, Rubin said, the EPA needs to get better at measuring how its restoration projects benefit the communities most impacted by pollution and habitat loss.

“This report emphasizes, and re-emphasizes, what we’ve been talking about with the EPA,” she said.

Studies show that environmental problems — from air pollution to flooding and extreme heat — routinely hit communities of color and poor communities hardest. The unequal burden stems from a legacy of discriminatory policies that have forced Black, brown and poor communities into the least desirable neighborhoods, often directly adjacent to polluting industries.

Auditors recommended that EPA boost training requirements for GLRI project officers and do a better job of evaluating and reporting environmental justice-related outcomes from GLRI grants, among other requirements. 

The EPA agreed with the audit’s recommendations.

In a response memo to auditors, Teresa Seidel, director of the EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office, said her office has improved its training and grant tracking to address issues raised in the audit. And she noted that her office has established a new environmental justice-focused grant program in the Great Lakes.

“We look forward to tracking the progress of these Programs and reporting on accomplishments in future Reports to Congress,” she wrote.


Researchers at the University of Michigan found that every $1 spent on GLRI grants generates a threefold return on investment

The initiative has bipartisan support in Congress, where lawmakers are considering legislation to fund it for another five years. 

Its budget has nearly doubled since 2021, when the Biden Administration awarded $1 billion in new funding for toxic site cleanups, habitat restoration and other Great Lakes projects as part of the federal infrastructure package.

Federal officials have said they hope to use the extra money to remove the vast majority of contaminated sites from the federal areas of concern list, including several Michigan rivers.

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