Cover Story: The $26 Billion Question

Presidential candidates need to address Great Lakes clean up

Apr 16, 2008 at 2:06 pm

John Austin of the Brookings Institution says that if the government spends $26 billion cleaning up the Great Lakes the economic benefit to America will be $80 billion to $100 billion. Austin was the keynote speaker at a recent economic development summit in Toledo that drew government officials from the Great Lakes region.

Austin told The Toledo Blade, "Our trade between the U.S. and Canada is the biggest on Earth. This region is the agricultural-industrial center of the universe."

In 2006, economists from the University of Illinois calculated that cleaning the toxic gunk out of the Buffalo River in New York would raise property values in the immediate area, so much so that new tax revenues from the higher values would totally offset the cleanup costs. They did the same analysis for the Sheboygan River in Wisconsin, with the same findings: Toxic cleanup can pay for itself.

Clean means green.

Good thing we're getting a new president this year. The Bush administration has disinvested in the pollution control, health studies, environmental cleanup and economic revitalization efforts that President Clinton started in the 1990s — even when the numbers work.

The current presidential campaigns, however, don't indicate much awareness of the economic or health consequences of the Great Lakes pollution problem.

Nor is there evidence that the national policy intellectuals have much to advise their candidates about the broad band of issues — legal, environmental, demographic and economic — that are common to all the Great Lakes states but that are very much different than the challenges in the South and the West.

Should presidential candidates get into the weeds? You betcha they should. Because if there isn't a national presidential coordination of policy approaches, the revitalization of the Great Lakes — including the cleanup that Bush and his appointees don't want to talk about and don't want you to know we need — won't happen.

The policy details matter
The last ice age gave North America an astounding freshwater legacy called Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario. These five sweetwater seas have been, from the moment in August 1679 when LaSalle and Hennepin launched their sailing ship Griffon just upstream from Niagara Falls, a highway in continuous use for trade, immigration and traffic in everything that's been mined, farmed and fabricated in the interior. A century of heavy industry dirtied them up.

The Bush administration has tried to hush up just how polluted they've become. Investigative journalists at the Center for Public Integrity recently exposed how Bush appointees shelved a report on the health effects of toxic pollution in the 26 "areas of concern" — areas like the Buffalo River, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River, Detroit's Rouge River, Chicago's Calumet Harbor and Green Bay in Wisconsin.

The Great Lakes region has water quality issues that need to be solved before they get even more expensive and before the health issues — cancer clusters, low-birth-weight babies, infertility and worse — get even uglier.

Back in 1990, before the Democrats lost control of Congress to a Republican majority drawn mainly from the Sun Belt and the West, Congress passed the Great Lakes Critical Program Act of 1990.

During Clinton's presidency, there was deliberate, well-researched action. The Environmental Protection Agency put new standards forward for dealing with problems most of us would just as soon have somebody else think about, like sewage disposal.

There was enforcement. There was progress. But not enough.

The toxic "hot spots" are still hot. Brownfields are still brown. The Great Lakes are still getting dirty, and the Canadian-U.S. cooperation that was cleaning them up isn't doing it fast enough.

Meanwhile, suburban sprawl — especially in population-losing New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio — produces more runoff ("non-point-source pollution") than the decaying sewer systems of the old cities can handle.

Why time is running out
Assuming for the moment that Democrats will do the right thing and get cracking, it's good news for the Great Lakes region that Democrats are expected to pick up seats in the House and Senate this year. Powerful Committee chairs like Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.) are overbooked, but they're from the Great Lakes — unlike Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina.

Great Lakes issues had better be formulated and ready to go this next year, 2009, because the Great Lakes states are going to continue to shed population, and that means an abrupt loss of Congressional clout after the next reapportionment in 2011.

The next president is going to take office in 2009. The next Census will be conducted in 2010. In 2011, state legislatures will redraw Congressional districts.

New York State is going to lose between one and four seats. Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota will all probably lose seats. The Sunbelt and the West will become even more powerful. The clock is ticking.

Taking the long view to, say, 2020, it's reasonable to expect that demands on the Great Lakes watershed will grow as pressure grows to repopulate the regions that baby boomers and their parents have fled for the Sunbelt.

Meanwhile, there's the rest of the country to think about. The greater Atlanta area is suffering from a terrible multi-year drought. Deep drought also afflicts Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and parts of the Carolinas. The Sunbelt, gaining in political clout, is running out of water.

Sprawl is different in the Great Lakes than it is in California or in the South. The urban isolation of poor blacks in Buffalo, Detroit, Cleveland and the other cities of the Great Lakes is different. Water systems infrastructure problems are different than in the Southeast or the Southwest.

The paradigms that national policy-shapers use suit national policies. That sounds logical, but it's not always appropriate.

Regional obviously works. Local doesn't. But neither the Bush approach of squelching science nor the treetop approach of Procrustean one-size-fits-all, never-run-for-sheriff policy wonks will work either.

So here's the challenge: How to get the presidential candidates to get their arms around the distinctive policy challenges of this distinctive region of the country. Or more simply: Which one of the candidates will put $26 billion on the table?

A version of this article first ran in Artvoice, the alternative newsweekly in Buffalo, N.Y.