Study questions reporting, transparency in popular federal Great Lakes restoration program; Detroit River cleanup lags

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In a January report, scientific researchers spotlight reporting limitations in the multi-billion dollar federal Great Lakes restoration program that launched with fanfare in 2010. 

The program’s mission is to restore the Great Lakes to a semblance of what they were before the industrial era that peaked in the 1950s and 1960s.

The program, officially known as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI),  is managed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the lead of the 15 federal agencies involved. 

Approximately $3 billion has been expended on 6,000 projects through March 2021, according to the GLRI project website. President Biden’s 2023 budget proposal includes $340 million, subject to congressional approval.  

After examining thousands of entries on a spreadsheet that describe restoration projects, the researchers found an overall lack of transparency that would allow public access to project data that measures progress.

Among the researchers’ findings:

  • Progress reports to Congress “rely heavily on qualitative information and project manager opinions.”
  • GLRI monitoring data to corroborate project manager assertions is not available to the public; therefore, “third-party reviews cannot be conducted to measure GLRI projects objectively.” 
  • There are “emergent critiques that question the extent of social or community input in planning processes and the distribution of the benefits achieved by GLRI with an equity lens.”

The report, published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research, had a stated goal of contributing to the adaptive management of the GLRI by analyzing publicly available project data to improve its useability. 

The researchers noted that these issues are not unique to GLRI, writing that “ecological restoration in general faces criticism for lack of accountability and the subjective nature of determining success.”

Matthew Jurjonas is the project’s lead author. The work was supported by the Michigan Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR).

The Nature Conservancy has been a recipient of GLRI funding and CIGLR is sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a primary recipient of GLRI funding. 

Jurjonas, who is supportive of the overall scope of GLRI, said in email exchanges that GLRI’s database has “very little utility for anyone trying to conduct independent research about the restoration work conducted.”

Jurjonas also noted that the last report on GLRI to Congress was for 2018, and it wasn’t posted until December 2021. “These reports are also very limited. They highlight a few success stories, and as you will notice in 2018, Detroit and Rouge Rivers are not among them,” Jurjonas said. 

The researchers also found that funding frequently went to a particular agency and then sub-contracted to other entities, making it difficult to know who the ultimate recipient was.  “Calls for GLRI to address emergent threats, engage in adaptive management, and improve governance are still common,” the report said.  

Planet Detroit asked the EPA to comment on the report’s findings in general, including the reliance on project manager opinions as to the determinant of success and the lack of information available to the public.

“We have read the study. It has some interesting points. EPA stands behind its implementation of the GLRI.  We welcome the oversight by Congress and feedback from other stakeholders like academia,” EPA spokesperson Eileen Deamer said. 

The not-for-profit Healing Our Waters (HOW) coalition tracks GLRI projects and reports on “success” stories on its website. 

HOW Executive Director Laura Rubin told Planet Detroit that HOW does not evaluate projects, but that the EPA has a “good database” to support tracking of GLRI funding.

Rubin said when federal funding is used, information on how it’s spent should be available, adding that ”to be successful, government programs need transparency.” 

One area where GLRI could benefit from increased transparency is how funding is distributed through the 15 agencies involved with GLRI, Rubin said.

Slow progress on the Detroit River

The Detroit River is one of the sites on a 1987 list of locations in the Great Lakes region officially designated as an Area of Concern based on toxic sediment from industrial pollution in the waterways.

According to information previously provided by the EPA, the river still contains approximately 3.5 million cubic yards of toxic sediment.

Since GLRI funding became available in 2010, the EPA has remediated 13,000 cubic yards of that sediment in the Detroit River, agency spokesperson Eileen Deamer told Planet Detroit.

According to Deamer, an additional 30,000 cubic yards are scheduled for remediation later in 2022, and plans are in the works to remediate an additional 250,000 cubic yards. Toxic sediment remediation means it has either been removed or covered with a protective cap which will require ongoing monitoring to ensure its integrity. 

Overall, GLRI has supported approximately 96 projects for Detroit River restoration valued at $117 million since 2010, according to the EPA’s database. Much of the work has focused on habitat restoration, like a $790,000 2016 project for Upper Riverfront Parks Habitat restoration design. 

The Detroit River is due to receive a slice of the Biden administration’s $1 billion from the infrastructure bill dedicated to cleaning up the Areas of Concern. EPA estimates the cost is between $100 and $200 million and targets 2030 as the completion date. 

Funding from the infrastructure bill has “the potential to rapidly accelerate progress in cleaning up and restoring AOCs and to significantly reduce the time required to remediate sites,” according to spokesperson Taylor Gillespie, who did not provide additional details.  

Rick Horbola, who manages the cleanup of Area of Concern sites for the Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy, has said that the 2030 date is “highly optimistic”  for making progress on the Detroit River.

One substantial obstacle to progress in toxic site remediation for the Detroit River and other sites is the federal requirement that projects have a non-federal sponsor financial contribution. Ideally, that source would be the party responsible for the pollution, but those entities no longer exist in most cases. 

A remedy would be to amend existing legislation and eliminate the non-federal sponsor requirement, but Chris Korleski, who directs the Great Lakes office in Chicago, questions that remedy. The local knowledge and the financial commitment received from the non-federal sponsors offset the delay incurred, Korleski previously said

Planet Detroit asked Rep. Debbie Dingell’s office if she would sponsor or support such legislation. Dingell, a Democrat, is a member of the Congressional Great Lakes Task Force that works to “enhance the economic and environmental health of the Great Lakes region.” Dingell did not directly respond to the question.

“We need to clean up the Great Lakes – plain and simple. This has been one of my highest priorities since the day I was elected to Congress, and even before then. I will continue to work with federal, state, and local officials to make sure the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has the tools necessary to get this work done,” Dingell spokesperson Jay Rhoden said in an email.

Rhoden did not respond to a follow-up inquiry on amending the legislation that could expedite the process. Friends of the Detroit River, a recipient of GLRI funding, declined to comment.

Author Dave Dempsey, who has tracked the river’s decline and nascent attempt to recover for decades, has written that the Detroit River “defines southeast Michigan and sits at the heart of the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem, the Great Lakes.” 

“The Detroit River is the aquatic Main Street of the Great Lakes system. Its cleanup is so important. Its recovery to date has been encouraging. But we might have to accept that ‘cleanup’ involves leaving a lot of pollution in place and covering it up,” Dempsey told Planet Detroit.


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