Thought Leadership

How Toxic Hotspots Were Identified, Money Arrived, and a Network Was Born

September 6, 2023

Lighthouse on a Great Lake

By Cam Davis – Vice President, GEI

This is the second blog in a five-part series.

In my first post about Great Lakes Restoration, I shared a brief history about the first moves by the U.S. and Canada to commit to saving the Great Lakes ecosystem. That history concluded with the important recognition of an ecosystem approach to Great Lakes management but that federal funding didn’t keep pace with federal restoration commitments. Now, let’s explore how that’s changing with the U.S. Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Recognizing that upkeep for the Great Lakes was long overdue, in 2009, President Barack Obama proposed and a bipartisan Congress funded the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). With funding now having reached more than $4 billion over its short, impactful life, federal, tribal, state, and municipal agencies are investing in beating back the very same threats mentioned in Part 1.

The GLRI didn’t get proposed overnight. Congress first created a “mini-GLRI” called the Great Lakes Legacy Act, which set aside more than $50 million for toxic hotspot cleanups. First added to a binational list of “Areas of Concern” or “AOCs” in 1987, these industrial rivers and harbors were, and many still are today, beleaguered with pollutants like PCBs that linger in their bottom sediments, creating a domino effect of ecological and public health risks. Advocates and Congress recognized that to clean up these working waterways, commitments alone were no longer enough. The policies, expertise, research, and technology existed to restore them, but the region lacked the most basic ingredient to success: sufficient funding.

Great Lakes Pyramid Graphic

The Legacy Act proved to Congress that the region could be trusted to use the money properly to clean up Areas of Concern. The 1987 list started out with 31 AOCs (in the U.S. or shared along the binational border with Canada). Thanks to Legacy Act funding from Congress (which has since been rolled into the GLRI), six AOCs have been “delisted,” that is with cleanup, site restoration, and removal from the binational list complete. Today, the amount of funding allocated for AOC cleanup far exceeds that of any other kind of work under the GLRI. Restoration work advances faithfully because of dedicated agency staff, outside expertise, and public champions that spend years, if not decades, often voluntarily, making sure that communities have a say in the future of their waterways. Over the decades, an entire network of people and organizations committed to restoring these vital rivers and harbors gathers at an annual AOC Conference (if you attend, please say hi).

Because of the success of the program, and in large part because of the progress being made in AOCs, Congress has pushed more funding to the region. Up next, we’ll look at that funding and help you understand how to access it to help the Great Lakes.

See my previous blog on how the Great Lakes restoration began more than 50 years ago. If you have questions or comments, contact me.