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EPA seeks public input on its fourth Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan

lake erie

The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking public input for its upcoming Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan.

The EPA’s three previous GLRI Action Plans have supported projects to remove contaminated sediment in the Ashtabula River and revitalize habitats in the Maumee River.

Now, the agency is asking what else should be included in its efforts to improve the health of the Great Lakes and which communities have been overlooked.

“We all want to make the plan better, but really honing in on 'Here's what I think you need to do in GLRI world to make this plan work better,’” Director of the EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office Chris Korleski said during a public engagement session on June 27. “That's what we're looking for. That kind of specificity.”

The initiative will host a series of in-person public engagement sessions in Milwaukee, New York and Michigan and an additional virtual session on August 23.

Similar to the three previous action plans, Action Plan IV will feature water quality and environmental improvement projects across five focus areas including toxic substances and Areas of Concern, invasive species, nonpoint source pollution impacts on nearshore health, habitat and species and foundations for future actions.

The goal is to delist waterways currently deemed Areas of Concern by removing toxic substances in sediment, reducing pollution, restoring natural habitats and preventing or controlling invasive species, Deputy Director of the EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office Todd Nettesheim said.

“By 2030 we want to have all but three of the remaining areas of concern -- have all the work completed at those Areas of Concern,” he said. “That is a massive undertaking, and that would include the Cuyahoga River and the Maumee Areas of Concern in Ohio.”

Through the GLRI, five Areas of Concern have been cleaned up and delisted since the initiative was founded in 2010, Nettesheim said, including the Ashtabula River in 2021.

“That means that enough restoration and remediation work occurred that it was no longer deemed to be an Area of Concern,” he said. “In addition, we have completed restoration activities at ten additional Areas of Concern, and Ohio has seen substantial progress in that arena.”

The Ashtabula River was listed as an Area of Concern in part due to decades of industrial pollution that flowed into the water. But Section Supervisor of AOC Project Managers and the Great Lakes Legacy Act Scott Cieniawski said there was more when it came to the river being added to the list.

“There are things like … loss of habitat … [and] other potential impacts that are not from contamination that also resulted ... in the Ashtabula River being listed as an Area of Concern,” he said. “It went beyond just that contamination, … but that was a big part of it.”

A waterway may become listed as an Area of Concern based on the EPA’s Beneficial Use Impairments or the level at which the chemical, physical or biological integrity of the waterbody is causing environmental decline, according to the website.

The EPA currently lists 14 Beneficial Use Impairments including fish, bird and animal deformities, drinking water restrictions and loss of fish and wildlife habitat.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative partnered with Ashtabula City Port Authority, the Ashtabula River Cooperation Group, the Ohio EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the $60 million sediment remediation process that was required to clean up the river, Cieniawski said.

“It is a great example of how like local citizens, local entities, the state industry and U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers came together to execute ... that project,” he said. “That project was completed in 2007 and at the time it was the largest project completed under the Great Lakes Legacy Act.”

Similarly, the initiative has invested about $58 million, along with an additional $43 million in leveraged funds, for restoration and sediment projects on the Maumee River, Task Force Lead and Beneficial Use Impairments Coordinator Leah Medley said. The initiative is also overseeing more than 40 habitat restoration projects along the river, including a recently completed project at Howard Marsh.

“There were 20 different projects that were identified by the state and local partners to help improve wildlife habitat with GLRI and that leveraged funding there,” she said. “All of those projects have been funded and after this year there will only be five left to complete. So, they've already completed a lot of that work.”

Projects outlined in the fourth action plan will be implemented from 2025 through 2029, and a draft of the plan is expected to be available to the public by winter of 2023, according to the website. Ideas, questions and concerns can be sent in via email to GLRIActionPlanIV@epa.gov.

Zaria Johnson is a reporter/producer at Ideastream Public Media covering the environment.