Closing Chicago EPA may cripple Great Lakes effort

Sources recently revealed to Chicago Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed reports that President Donald Trump may plan to downsize the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by shuttering the regional branch office in Chicago and consolidating it with the EPA’s Kansas office.

Of course, federal agencies often face criticism for being overstaffed, bureaucratic, overreaching and inefficient — and all that often is true. But before you start applauding the dismantling of this particular agency that many believe enforces too many regulations driving business and industry out of the United States, take pause. The Region 5 office in Chicago is responsible for overseeing the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, as well as overseeing local and state environmental matters in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Ohioans — especially those of us who live in this northeastern part of the state — are well aware of problems in the Great Lakes, and especially Lake Erie. Toxic algae and invasive species, including the Asian carp, are growing serious threats to water quality and the lake’s environmental stability.

For several years, the EPA has battled these concerns through direct federal action and funding of state initiatives. According to one report, Ohio has received more than $200 million for the purpose since 2011.

Now, the possibility of the president closing the Chicago office does not seem out of the realm of possibility.

Politico magazine reported in February that President Trump’s budget chief, Mick Mulvaney, singled out the EPA as a particular target for budget cuts — and the EPA was expected to identify two regional offices for closure by June 15.

Last month, Trump said he wanted to slash funding for the Great Lakes initiative, now set at about $300 million a year, to just about $10 million.

Region 5 employs about 1,500 people and reportedly has one of the heaviest workloads in the agency.

When word starting leaking out last week about the regional office’s possible closure, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Howland, fired off a statement vowing to do everything in his power to stop what he sees as “an attack on the Midwest and the Great Lakes Region.”

“The Great Lakes are a vital resource and strategic advantage,” Ryan said. “It’s critical that we do everything in our power to safeguard their health and well-being.”

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said this: “The EPA exists to protect human health and the environment. The administration’s plan would be harmful to the environment and public health in Chicago, in Illinois, and in the entire Great Lakes region, and that should outrage all of us living in our nation’s heartland.”

Whether you believe strong environmental guidelines are saving our world or hurting our industry, there should be little argument that the Great Lakes do both.

Lake Erie alone supports more than 117,000 full time jobs and provides clean drinking water to approximately 3 million Ohioans.

I always will argue that government spending must be examined and re-examined to ensure that expenses are absolutely warranted. If a department is overreaching or overspending, then it should be suspended.

But I fear that crippling the campaign to preserve the value of this important waterway is not the right answer.

Allowing Lake Erie and the other lakes to become cesspools would not benefit anyone.