President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have created uncertainty about environmental cleanup and restoration efforts in the Chicago area and Northwest Indiana.
Although the specific effects of the potential cuts are still unclear, the president’s budget blueprint slashes $2.6 billion from the EPA’s budget, including cuts that could affect Superfund cleanup sites like the one in East Chicago, Ind. It also eliminates all money going toward the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a program that started in 2010 to restore habitats, wildlife and water quality across eight Great Lakes states including Illinois and Indiana.
Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council of Chicago said that while it’s still uncertain which specific programs or initiatives of the EPA will be affected by the cuts, it’s still a troubling proposal.
“The scope of these cuts are pretty insane,” Mogerman said. “They hit almost every aspect of the work that the EPA does and those are really fundamental protections for public health and against pollution that I think most Americans have come to expect in their day-to-day lives.”
That could affect waterways like the Grand Calumet River, a tributary of Lake Michigan that runs east to west through parts of Gary, Hammond and East Chicago. Due to decades of pollution dumping by industry, including steel mills and chemical companies, the waterway was considered a dead river.
Over the last 10 years, millions of dollars have been spent in dredging and other cleanup efforts to vastly improve the river. But that progress is in danger if the president’s proposed cuts go through, said Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter J. Visclosky.
“We have made great strides to the Grand Calumet River that would have been absent without these funds,” Visclosky said. “Throughout the Great Lakes region, we have suffered because of the industrial degradation over the last century. We need to clean that up first and foremost for people’s health and safety. And secondly, so that we have an inviting quality of place so we can rebuild the economy in these industrial areas.”
He’s concerned about what it could mean for the ongoing cleanup of lead and other contaminants in East Chicago -- a problem that’s forcing hundreds of residents from a public housing complex there.
“At this point, it’s impossible to project how the remaining money will be distributed by the EPA and what the actual program effect will be,” Visclosky said. “Obviously, investing in our nation’s defenses is important but if we don’t (invest) in healthcare and the safety of the citizens in places like East Chicago, you’re not going to be in the position to join the military. … We have to invest in this country and this is a very dangerous policy the president has embarked on.”
EPA spokeswoman Julia Valentine said the agency's administrator, Scott Pruitt, is "committed to leading the EPA in a more effective, more focused, less costly way as we partner with state to fulfill the agency's core mission."
"The budget blueprint reflects the President’s priorities of preserving clean air and water as well as to ease the burden of costly regulations to industry," she said.
Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @MikePuenteNews.