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Before debates, Gretchen Whitmer urges Democrats to protect Great Lakes

Thrashing Asian carp

Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer on Monday joined four other Democratic governors in unveiling a “Great Lakes 2020 Presidential Agenda” -‒ a list of priorities they say are needed to protect “the ecology, economy, and health” of the Great Lakes and inland waterways.

The six-item platform touches on topics ranging from fixing the region’s deteriorating drinking water systems to blocking more havoc-wreaking invasive species from entering the Great Lakes. 

“We must partner with the federal government to ensure we're doing everything we can to protect our freshwater, which is why I'm encouraging all 2020 presidential candidates from both parties to sign on to this agenda,” Whitmer said in a statement. 

Joining Whitmer were: Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers. 

Whitmer told the Associated Press three other Great Lakes governors declined her requests to sign on to the statement: New York Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republicans Mike DeWine of Ohio and Eric Holcomb of Indiana. 

But she said DeWine’s staff provided “a lot of input” behind the scenes. 

“I simply think it’s a political concern,” Whitmer said of DeWine’s choice not to sign on, according to the AP.  “I know we’ve worked very closely on those policies and that’s why I feel comfortable pushing this out. I know there is bipartisan support for this agenda.”

A Whitmer spokeswoman confirmed the AP report to Bridge Magazine. 

The release comes as 20 Democratic presidential hopefuls prepare for two nights of debates in Detroit Tuesday and Wednesday. Some candidates have already seized on one hot-button environmental issue on the campaign trail: the future of Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac. 

Related: Hey, CNN: Ask Democratic candidates these 6 Michigan policy questions

The platform outlined Monday includes calls for the next president to: 

  • Triple federal investment in Clean and Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Funds
    This is to address what the governors described as the region’s “$179 billion backlog in drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure” that jeopardizes public health. In 2016, a commission assembled by then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder concluded Michigan was short $800 million per year to meet water and sewer system needs due to decades of deferred maintenance. 

  • Boost Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding from $300 million to $475 million per year
    That money goes to projects that protect and improve the Great Lakes and inland lakes and rivers ‒ including cleaning up pollution and addressing damage from invasive species. President Trump raised bipartisan concerns across the region by proposing massive cuts to the funding for three consecutive years. But during a rally in Grand Rapids in March, he vowed to deliver all $300 million in funding, claiming he “always” supported the Great Lakes. 

  • Fully fund and quicken plans to build a barrier to keep invasive Asian carp out of Lake Michigan
    The barrier, at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Joliet, Ill, is seen as critical to prevent Asian carp from destroying lake habitats. In May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers submitted a $778 million request to Congress to build the barrier.

  • Help states meet goals to limit harmful algae blooms in Lake Erie 
    This involves curbing phosphorus-rich runoff from farm fields and other sources 40 percent by 2025. The governors’ plan would happen through “federal funding, resources, and new technologies while continuing to monitor, report, and reduce nutrient pollution” in the waters. Sometimes toxic, the blooms are eyesores that gunk up beaches, choke marine life and, in rarer cases, threaten drinking water. 

  • Bolster funding for ports, harbors and “critical marine infrastructure” 
    This includes the Soo Locks reconstruction project at Sault Ste. Marie. The governors say $900 million is needed -on top of $52 million already provided in Michigan ‒ to modernize the Soo Locks and keep it operational during reconstruction. “A six-month unplanned closure at the Soo Locks would devastate the production of integrated steel, automobiles, and other heavy equipment throughout North America, decreasing U.S. gross domestic product by $1.3 trillion,” Whitmer said.  

  • Push for federal action to address contamination from PFAS
    Michigan officials and residents of PFAS-tainted communities want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set a national standard to limit these harmful “forever chemicals” increasingly being found in waters, and they’ve accused the U.S. Department of Defense for dragging its feet in cleaning up military base contamination that has spread to surrounding communities. That includes at Oscoda’s Wurtsmith Air Force Base, where PFAS from fire suppressants has leached into surface and drinking water and bubbled into toxic foam that’s washed onto beaches.

Environmental advocates praised the governors for outlining the platform. 

“We owe it to future generations to clean up the pollution that’s been left behind and prevent any further contamination,” Conan Smith, president and CEO of Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council, said in a statement. 

One issue not mentioned in the platform: the Line 5 pipeline. That’s the 66-year-old twined pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac that Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is trying to shut down in a lawsuit. She calls Line 5 a continuing threat of grave harm to critical public rights in the Great Lakes,” while Enbridge ‒ joined by many Republicans and six Michigan House Democrats -‒ say it wants to protect Line 5 in a bedrock tunnel to ensure oil and gas can continue to flow through it. 

Two Democratic presidential candidates - Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- have called for the pipeline to be shutdown.

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