EPA watchdog role needs to continue

In 1899, botanist Henry Cowles tromped around the sand dunes, documenting the startling plant diversity along Indiana’s southern shores of Lake Michigan. Cowles and others led efforts to preserve the dunes with a national park, but they couldn’t compete with corporate plans for the lake shore.

Northwest Indiana’s future was carved out of sand in 1906 when industrial giants J.P. Morgan and Elbert H. Gary built U.S. Steel on the southern shores of Lake Michigan. The steel plant and a city sprouted on the 9,000 acres of undeveloped lakefront land east of Chicago. World War I and the need for steel erased any hope of preservation harbored by early environmentalists.

The region’s lakeshore filled in with steel mills and coal-fired power plants belching a collective smoke and haze over the skies, hastening vacationing Chicago motorists to drive by and chuckle on their way to Michigan’s pristine waters.

Yet, there has been a co-existence of parks in the fragile sand dunes and major industry. It’s always been a challenge. Last week, we learned U.S. Steel’s Midwest sheet and tin finishing plant in Portage released a cancer-causing toxin into the Burns Waterway, depositing it at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Park. The spill of hexavalent chromium quickly prompted the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to close beaches at West Beach, Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Park, and Cowles Bog. Nearby Ogden Dunes also closed its beach.

Officials are saying they’ve capped the leak and the EPA says preliminary testing show hexavalent chromium was not present near drinking water intakes. Still, more tests are being done as environmentalists raise serious concerns about government regulation of lakefront industries that can jeopardize Lake Michigan’s waters.

President Donald Trump has ratcheted up the concern with talk of dismantling the EPA’s oversight into big industries, like U.S. Steel. The plant in Portage is one of six on Lake Michigan’s southern shore that records show released a combined 1,696 pounds of hexavalent chromium into Lake Michigan and its tributaries in 2015. That’s the same metal that triggered a cancer cluster in a California town chronicled in the movie “Erin Brockovich.”

Trump’s budget would eliminate an EPA program that’s working on standards for hexavalent chromium in drinking water. The work has been delayed by objections from the chemical industry. Under Trump’s plan, industry won’t have to worry about standards. Trump’s budget also would reduce scientific research of toxic chemicals and the EPA’s enforcement of environmental laws.

Trump also wants to scrap the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, an EPA cleanup effort that began in 2010. Trump’s budget would cut its funding from $300 million to $10 million annually.

This is not just a battle to be fought by environmentalists. It’s up to all of us to let our lawmakers know that relinquishing the EPA’s watchdog function is not acceptable.

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