GAO: Great Lakes cleanup is a mess

by David Sonju
Posted 11/12/13, 02:21 pm

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report Friday criticizing a $1.3 billion federal program to clean up the Great Lakes. The GAO claims that without adequate assessments to measure performance, it’s hard to know whether the money was well spent.

In its investigation, the GAO examined, among other things, what methods the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) uses to assess the progress of the GLRI. The report discovered that “some of the goals and objectives do not link to any measures and, as a result, it is unclear how EPA will be able to assess progress toward them.”

The Obama administration launched the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) in 2010 to address environmental problems afflicting the Great Lakes such as toxic pollution and invasive species. A task force created comprehensive goals and objectives for the next four years that would “lead to the restoration of the Great Lakes."

And some of the measures leave out important factors. For instance, one measure tracks reduction of the chemicals in fish with the goal of lifting the ban on human consumption of fish from the lakes. However, the measure leaves out mercury and other contaminants. The report draws the conclusion that “without useful measures, EPA may not be able to determine the GLRI efforts are producing the desired results.”

Congressmen Bill Shuster, R-Pa.,and Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, who chair the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, requested the report in light of concerns about the lack of Great Lakes restoration efforts in the last decade. The GAO found in 2004 that “the EPA monitoring efforts did not provide comprehensive information on the condition of the Great Lakes.” In 2009 the EPA's Office of the Inspector General reported that the “EPA had not developed an effective management framework to clean up contaminated sediments in the Great Lakes areas of concern.”

The Great Lakes provide drinking water to more than 30 million people and are an economic pillar for eight states and two Canadian provinces. Their size— they contain about 84 percent of surface freshwater in North America—makes restoration efforts daunting. The GAO's report urges expanding the next action plan to include issues such as wastewater infrastructure and the effects of climate change.

Susan Hedman, EPA's Great Lakes National Program Manager, told the GAO in a letter that her agency agrees with most of its findings, and a new plan scheduled to begin in 2015 will take those issues into account.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

David Sonju

David is a World Journalism Institute graduate and former WORLD contributor.

Read more from this writer