In 2005, after meeting for a year, a 1,500-plus member advisory group called the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, convened by Pres. George W. Bush, recommended that the 35 percent requirement be eliminated or reduced. The report said the matching fund requirement "for all practical purposes precludes the use of Legacy Act funds at those sites."
However, the requirement remains in place.
David Cowgill of the EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago, declined to comment on why the requirement stands. But he stressed that the agency is looking for other ways to fund cleanups.
"We’re not exclusive in our thinking," said Cowgill, the EPA program’s chief of technical assistance and analysis. "If it helps us achieve environmental protection, we’re interested."
For example, Cowgill said, dredging toxic sediment might have the side effect of improving shipping lanes, so industry groups could benefit from chipping in. He also said state and local governments can meet their requirement with services, such as use of dredging equipment, instead of cash.
Other Areas of Concern contain registered Superfund sites, leaving them ineligible for Legacy Act dollars and forcing them to wait in a long line of backlogged projects.
"If we didn’t have Superfund here, then we would look to the Legacy Act," said Jeff Spoelstra, head of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, which coordinates the remediation of that southwest Michigan stream. "But we actually have to wait in line for Superfund, which is a long process."
Late last year, EPA completed the first major cleanup of the Kalamazoo’s PCBs since it was declared a Superfund site in 1990.
But after the $25 million removal of some 300,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, Spoelstra’s optimism was tempered by the enormity of what lay ahead.
"In the big picture of the site, that’s something like two percent of the sediment," he said. "Given where the Superfund process is now, it will probably be upwards of 20 to 25 years" before the area is cleaned up to the point where it is removed from the Superfund list.
Then, in early January, Spoelstra got what he described as a punch in the gut when LyondellBasell Industries, which owns the paper companies responsible for remediation of the river, filed for bankruptcy.
It’s unclear how the bankruptcy would affect sediment removal on the river, but Spoelstra said it would likely put another significant obstacle in the already slow road to cleaning up the site.
"This program, it’s a frustrating one," he said. "These sites have been known about for so long. We went decades without funding to clean up these Great Lakes black eyes."
The Great Lakes Regional Collaboration’s 2005 report recommended annual spending of $150 million for 5 years for the Legacy Act. The House voted last September to reauthorize the act with spending boosted to that level, but the Senate cut the authorization to just two years at $54 million apiece, an annual increase of $4 million from past years.
So far, however, the act has not been funded above the $34.5 million spent in 2008.
Environmentalists had hoped President Obama’s federal stimulus package might be an opportunity to hasten the remediation process.
Lubetkin’s coalition asked Congress to include a $500 million addition to the Legacy Act over two years, saying it would create much-needed jobs and raise property values in affected areas. A report in the Journal of Great Lakes Research found a loss of property value of $118 million in New York’s Buffalo River area and $50 million near Wisconsin’s Sheboygan River due to contamination.
But Doss of the Great Lakes Commission said the sediment cleanup was seen as a region-specific earmark, so it was not part of the stimulus package.
Regardless, he said, much of the necessary planning and monitoring are complete at some sites, and he expects to see more tangible results soon.
"I think we’re gradually moving into a phase where we’ll see more on-the-ground cleanups," he said.
Environmentalists say it’s crucial that Doss’ assessment prove accurate. Cleaning up the sites could get more expensive the longer pollutants remain, they say, since the sediment can be buried further or migrate into the Great Lakes.
"The toxic contamination will spread," said Lubetkin. "At this point, status quo funding translates into the Great Lakes continuing to deteriorate."
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.