Environmental projects from the Lake Erie shores of Monroe to the Manistique River in the Upper Peninsula are threatened by proposed state and federal budget cuts.
The federal budget proposed by President Donald Trump eliminates funding for Great Lakes restoration work, while the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality could lose as much as $40 million between cuts in state and federal funds in 2018 compared to 2017 – cuts that could curb inspection and cleanup of toxic sites.
If the proposed cuts at the state and federal level are approved, “it means that a lot of programs geared toward protecting public health and the environment will not be funded,” said Charlotte Jameson, government affairs director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “We will see a decrease in enforcement of current standards and an even more ineffective Department of Environmental Quality, which is problematic.”
The current proposed state budget for fiscal year 2018, which emerged from a Senate and House conference committee and was passed by the House Tuesday, cuts $9.5 million from the Department of Environmental Quality’s current $516 million budget. That’s about a 2 percent cut.
Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Allegan, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the DEQ budget, said the DEQ budget is “flat,” and that the Legislature is being responsible with taxpayer’s money. “We’re doing our best,” Whiteford said. “My job is just to make sure that work is being done and taxpayer money is being spent effectively for those purposes.”
A 2-percent cut in funding sounds minor. The real decrease, however, is likely to be much larger. The DEQ budget includes millions of federal dollars funneled through the state to be used for oversight of various federal environmental regulations.
In the 2018 budget, Michigan lawmakers assumed the federal government would pump another $31 million into the state’s DEQ in 2018 than it did in 2017. That’s unlikely considering that Trump’s proposed federal budget calls for a 45 percent decrease in federal money given to states for various environmental programs.
Take away that rosy assumption, and the DEQ budget suddenly drops by not $9.5 million, but closer to $40 million.
Polling conducted in 2016 by The Center for Michigan, the parent organization of Bridge Magazine, found that 90 percent of those polled considered protection of the environment to be crucial or important, but 55 percent had little confidence in the state’s ability to do that. Those concerns cut across every age group, race and income level.
More than 30 percent of the MDEQ budget comes from federal funding. The MDEQ receives 80 to100 federal grants each year with a majority of the federal funding going directly to local communities for water infrastructure and environmental protection activities, according to Melody Kindraka, public information officer for the department. Federal funding also pays the salaries of 200 employees responsible for implementing air, land, and water quality efforts.
“While the current proposed federal budget could mean staffing and programmatic cuts, it is far too early in the process to speculate on specific impacts,” Kindraka said.
Environmental advocates, though, aren’t shy about warning of the impact of impending cuts. The Michigan Environmental Council and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters released a report last week detailing potential cuts.
Environmental efforts that these groups say could face cutbacks include:
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative provides federal funding for projects that protect and improve the Great Lakes and inland lakes and rivers. It’s a big deal. To get an idea how important the program has been for Michigan, take a look at this map:
The presidential administration’s budget eliminates the program, which has provided $2.2 billion in funding for environmental projects in Great Lakes states since 2010. A dozen Michigan projects were set to begin or continue GLRI-funded restoration. Some examples: reconnecting the Rouge River to tributaries; continued PCB cleanup in the sediment along the Kalamazoo River; and removal of toxic sediment from old industrial sites along the Manistique River in the Upper Peninsula.
“The DEQ has told me they are not backfilling jobs because they don’t know if programs are going to be here next year,” said Jameson, of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. “Even in areas where we need more staff, it’s not happening.”
Great Lakes research
The proposed federal budget also eliminates the Sea Grant program, which funds research on the Great Lakes at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan. One example of Sea Grant research: an attempt to repopulate Cisco, also known as Lake Herring, once the Great Lakes’ primary prey fish, into Lake Michigan.
The federal program has funded research in Michigan for almost 50 years.
The Clean Michigan Initiative provided money for inspection and cleanup of potentially polluted land such as abandoned factories, gas stations and dry cleaners. James Clift, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, said there are about 7,000 sites across the state identified as potentially hazardous.
One example ‒ the former Rock-Tenn paper mill in Otsego, in Allegan County, where Clean Michigan Initiative funding has helped pay for cleanup. Only about 1,000 of the 7,000 sites have been examined in recent years, Clift said, and about 10 percent of those were found to pose immediate risk.
The remaining 6,000 “have been ignored for 10 to 20 years,” Clift said. “If the numbers hold true, there are hundreds of those sites that pose a significant risk to public health.”
The inspection program, already “reactive to complaints rather than proactively looking to see if they’re posing a risk,” has run out of money. The Clean Michigan Initiative was created in 1998 and was funded through a $675 million bond issue in 1998. That bond money has dried up, and the 2018 budget contains no replacement money. Gov. Rick Snyder had asked that $15 million be transferred from another fund, but the Legislature disagreed.
Funding will remain for inspections and cleanup of old petroleum tanks. But non-petroleum sites, such as old industrial plants and dry cleaning facilities, will likely drop off the state’s radar.
“We have no money for non-tank sites,” Clift said. “There’s a gap with no plan to fill it. Basically, they’ve decided this is not an emergency.”
Whiteford, the chair of the House subcommittee overseeing the DEQ budget, disagrees.
“I think the department is doing a good job with contamination as they find it,” she said.
But will they be able to find contamination with less money and fewer employees, wonders Julie Metty Bennett, senior vice president at Public Sector Consultants, who helped prepare the environmental program budget analysis released recently by environmental groups (Disclosure: The Center for Michigan is a PSC client). “There’s a major infrastructure problem in the state screaming for investment, and a lot of it is water-related,” Bennett said. “It’s surprising the Legislature would be talking about cuts.”
Cutting environmental protection efforts, on the heels of the Flint water crisis, isn’t being responsive to the public, argues Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, who serves on the subcommittee chaired by Whiteford. “We’re the Great Lakes State,” Rabhi said. “We care about our environment. It’s in our blood. We need to make sure the government is reflecting our values in its priorities.”