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Great Lakes budget cuts by House GOP jeopardize Buffalo River cleanup

WASHINGTON – House Republicans want to slash the 2014 budget for Great Lakes environmental programs by nearly 80 percent – a move that could stall the ongoing cleanup and restoration of the Buffalo River.

Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, lashed out at the proposed cut Tuesday, a day after a House subcommittee unveiled a spending plan for environmental programs that would reduce Great Lakes funding from $285 million this year to $60 million for the fiscal year beginning Oct.1.

It’s far too early to know exactly how the Environmental Protection Agency would implement the budget cuts that Republicans are seeking, but Higgins said it’s inevitable that a project as major as the Buffalo River cleanup would suffer.

“This would be a major, major setback to the Buffalo River remediation project,” he said.

The $44 million cleanup project has already resulted in the removal of a million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the bottom of the river, as well as the creation of the Times Beach Nature Preserve.

The next phase of the project, set to be completed in 2015, involves removing an additional 500,000 cubic yards of sediment from the river and the City Ship Canal, capping contaminated sediment on 8 to 10 acres of land and creating aquatic habitats in spots along the waterways.

The Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and private partners are also involved in the cleanup effort. But the bulk of the funding for the effort has come from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – the program that House Republicans are now targeting – which has funded restoration projects across the Great Lakes basin for the last four years.

In unveiling the spending bill for environmental programs and the Department of the Interior, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold D. Rogers, R-Ky., avoided any mention of the Great Lakes.

Instead he described the cuts generally as a matter of necessity.

“This is a difficult budget year, and this bill reflects the extraordinarily hard choices needed to maintain critical investments and services for local communities,” Rogers said. “In order to do more with less, the legislation seeks to protect vital programs that directly affect the safety and well-being of Americans, while dramatically scaling back lower-priority, or ‘nice-to-have’ programs.”

Environmentalists said House Republicans have targeted the Great Lakes program for cuts in previous years, but never before suggested slashing its budget by any more than $50 million, much less the $225 million cut proposed for 2014.

“Cuts of this magnitude would bring Great Lakes programs to a halt,” said Joel Brammeier, co-chairman of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition and president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Republicans are not likely to get the full cut they are seeking because Democrats control the Senate and the White House, but Higgins and other supporters of the Lakes fear that the GOP’s opening volley will make some sort of major cut in Great Lakes funding inevitable.

“These are 80 percent cuts,” Higgins said. “Even if we get half of it back, it’s a major, major cut.”

And the cuts go far beyond the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The Clean Water State Revolving Loan fund, which finances repairs to aging sewer systems, would be cut from $1.03 billion this year to $250 million in 2014.

“This is a major pullback,” Higgins said, adding that communities throughout the area have relied on the loan fund to modernize their sewer systems.

Higgins said that he will offer amendment to restore the Great Lakes funding when the spending bill reaches the House floor and that he’ll be looking to find Republican partners to join him in the effort.

They may not be hard to find. Nine Republicans – including Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence – were among the 38 lawmakers who signed a bipartisan letter in April calling for $300 million in Great Lakes funding. Collins could not be reached to comment, but he and the other Republicans who signed the letter may well join Higgins’ fight against the budget cuts.