EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced on June 3 that the agency was reestablishing the Great Lakes Advisory Board, after allowing the board to sit in limbo for nearly three years. The board, a multi-stakeholder group comprised of academics, civic servants, advocates, tribes, water utilities, and industry interests, has provided guidance to the EPA to direct how the agency implements federal Great Lakes restoration and protection actions.
The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition supports re-constituting the Great Lakes Advisory Board, if it is done in the spirit of advancing restoration and protection priorities. Here’s our take on the recent action, including what the board can accomplish over the last five months of President Trump’s first term in office.
Questions Remain about Goals of Advisory Board
Generally, we support reconvening the advisory board. However, it’s hard to reconcile EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s crowing about the Trump Administration’s support of the Great Lakes when you examine what the current White House has done, or, what it has not done. The Trump Administration had no use for the advisory board. The Trump EPA has convened the board two times during his presidency—in the first six months of his term. By comparison, the Great Lakes Advisory Board convened 23 times during President Obama’s second term in office. This, perhaps, is not surprising given the Trump Administration’s track record on the environment, generally, and Great Lakes, specifically. The Trump Administration gutted Great Lakes funding three times in its proposed budgets to Congress (the last time changing its mind when cornered at a visit to Michigan); eviscerated clean air and clean water protections (most recently a rollback of protections for streams and wetlands and weakening of state and tribal authority to protect local waters); and, it has disregarded science in much of its policy-setting.
The new board has a lot of work to make up for. If the board had been reconstituted earlier, it may have been a welcome outside voice to help provide input on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan 3 – the five-year strategy to guide federal restoration priorities and investments. But the action plan was released last fall during the board’s hiatus. With only five months left before national elections, it will be important for the EPA to quickly explain what the advisory board hopes to accomplish in the months ahead./
Board Can Tackle Trump Disconnect on Environmental Protections, Environmental Justice
There is important work that the board, in theory, could help with. A good start would be to look at the connection between Great Lakes restoration goals and the aforementioned roll-back of clean water protections and other environmental laws. The board could implore the EPA to immediately halt Trump Administration executive actions that undermine clean water goals for the Great Lakes and waters across the country. The EPA’s own Science Advisory Board, for instance, found that the weakening of Clean Water Act guidance would lead to less protections for streams and wetlands. It would be beneficial to have federal restoration investments supported by federal law, not undermined by it by faulty interpretations of it.
The board can also examine a topic that it has asked the EPA to take more seriously in the past—the issue of environmental justice. The EPA itself has concluded that people of color, rural people, under-resourced communities and tribal communities disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and degradation. It is important now, as the country grapples with the recent killing of George Floyd and systemic racism in society, that federal agencies look at how they are contributing to systemic racism. Great Lakes restoration and protection efforts can be included in that conversation. For example, in the nearly three years since the Great Lakes Advisory Board’s last convening, the connected issues of water shutoffs and water affordability have become increasingly salient and dire for millions of people in the Great Lakes region and across the country. Michigan State University researchers have found that, unless recent increases in water rates subside, by 2022 more than one-third of people in the United States will have trouble affording their water bills. Of course, the question is: Will the board deliver?
Whether the board can deliver rests on two things—the EPA Administrator and the composition of the Advisory Board. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s record gives us pause. Under his leadership, the EPA dismantled core environmental protections. This needs to stop. Secondly, the success of the board depends on the members themselves. There are many talented individuals on the board—some of whom are hold-overs from the last iteration of the Great Lakes Advisory Board under President Obama. There is also ample representation from chemical, fossil fuel, and agriculture industries—sectors which have not always been keen to adopt forward-thinking environmental actions. In fact, many of those industries have been leading the charge for weakening environmental protections. Further, there is only one environmental voice on the board. That’s insufficient. (Full disclosure: The Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition nominated itself to serve on the advisory board as well.) The Coalition would have preferred more environmental organizations on the board. This is not a difficult problem to solve if the Trump Administration welcomed those voices: The board previously had 20 people serve on it, and now it has 14. It would be easy to add members and strengthen the voices of those who are both advocating for and implementing Great Lakes restoration and protection projects in local communities.
Public Engagement Critical
We’ve laid out some areas where the board could definitely help; we’ve also outlined plenty of reasons that give us pause that this is merely for show. The formation of the Great Lakes Advisory Board in 2013 was an important step forward in the effort to restore and protect the Great Lakes. After the unprecedented regional collaboration in 2005 of more than 1,500 people to craft a $20 billion plan to restore and protect the Great Lakes, by 2012 the federal government had started to fund the plan. Projects were underway. It was time to assess what was working and what more needed to be done. The formation of Great Lakes Advisory Board was a way to continue to solicit stakeholder input to make sure that diverse voices maintained a seat at the table to help guide federal policy and implementation of federal restoration efforts. Great Lakes Advisory Board recommendations back then supported efforts to promote climate change, environmental justice, and adaptive management considerations into future planning. That kind of stakeholder input is still important—really, it always is. Convening outside stakeholders to challenge assumptions, provide new ideas, invite public input, and hold decisionmakers accountable is vital. The public always needs to be invited to help keep efforts on track and to ensure that restoration activities are as efficient and effective as possible. We hope that this effort is a roll-up-the sleeves, get-to-work endeavor that helps advance restoration priorities.
For our part, the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition will continue to be a strong voice for restoration and protection and robust community engagement. And we will hold federal officials accountable if they shirk their duties.