Federal plan would accelerate Great Lakes cleanups

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

This week, President Joe Biden and EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced a plan to use most of a $1 billion investment in the Great Lakes from the Infrastructure and Jobs Act to clean up polluted areas. These investments around the world’s greatest freshwater resource will improve ecosystems, support jobs, and deliver tangible local benefits for communities from New York to Minnesota.

The plan will allow the EPA to build on continuing efforts to restore Areas of Concern (AOCs), some of the sites most impacted across the region. These efforts were kickstarted with the implementation of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) in 2010, and have continued to make progress over the last decade. Funding for the GLRI has passed with bipartisan support every year since its inception, resulting in $3.8 billion in funding between 2010 and 2021.

With the help of the new infrastructure funds, restoration work on most of the 25 AOCs are projected to be complete by 2030. That includes Minnesota’s own AOC: the St. Louis River in the Duluth-Superior area.

The St. Louis River is the largest tributary of Lake Superior and is a vital resource for the Twin Ports, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and other nearby communities. Over decades, it’s been significantly degraded by industrial activities. Levels of mercury are especially problematic, and along with chemicals, this contamination has resulted in reductions in fishing, wildlife habitat, and waterfront uses. (MEP commissioned a report on just how bad the mercury situation in the river has gotten.)

As a large river, the St. Louis River presents challenges to restoration, and the EPA has established a series of goals and action steps to get it done. Sediment at the bottom of the riverbed must be dredged, then covered with a clean layer of sand. Shoals, islands, and other coastal features must be rebuilt to provide habitat for wildlife and protect the shoreline. Significant progress has been made already, but the new infrastructure funds will help to accelerate the work. The EPA estimates that management actions to restore the area will be complete by the middle of the decade, and that the AOC will be removed from the list by 2030.

That’s good news for aquatic ecosystems and the people who harvest food from them. It’s also great for the local economy. A 2018 study by the Great Lakes Commission calculated that every dollar spent on Great Lakes Restoration generates more than three times as much in economic activity. In the case of Duluth, these restoration investments have led to highly visible improvements in tourism, residential development, recreation, and livability.

These investments have been a major focus of MEP’s advocacy since the GLRI’s inception. Working closely with partners like Clean Water Action, have regularly sent local delegations to to DC and worked with Minnesota’s representatives to make the case for this restoration work and hosted tours in the areas affected. These congressional connections have consistently paid off, and we especially thank U.S. Senators Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar and Representative Betty McCollum for championing the new funds for the Great LAkes.

At a time when the Great Lakes face emerging threats including potential sulfide ore mining, oil pipelines like Line 3 and Line 5, and climate change, it’s more important than ever that we invest in protecting and restoring these resources. Working with our partners, state leaders, and Minnesotans who live near our greatest lake, MEP will continue advocating for our North Shore and the health of our waters.

For previous columns, visit mepartnership.org/category/blog/. If you would like to reblog or republish this column, you may do so for free – simply contact the author at matthew@mepartnership.org.

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