WASHINGTON – The Buffalo River got double-barreled good news on Thursday, as the Environmental Protection Agency said it had the money in place to continue its cleanup of the waterway and a House committee restored $150 million in fiscal 2014 Great Lakes funding that a subcommittee had cut last week.
In an email to Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, the EPA said it had $23 million in leftover funds for fiscal 2013 that it has used to enter into a contract for the next phase of the cleanup, which involves removing an additional 500,000 cubic yards of sediment from the river and the City Ship Canal.
“Barring any unexpected contingencies, the dredging is expected to begin this year and be completed next year,” said Denise Gawlinski Fortin, a congressional liaison at the EPA, in an email to Higgins’ office.
Fortin said the agency also is seeking the most cost-effective way to cap the sediment and to continue habitat restoration in and along the river, which are also part of the next phase of the project. She said the EPA expects that work to be paid for by the project’s nonfederal partner – the state Department of Environmental Conservation – but contracts for that work are not yet in place.
Still, the EPA’s announcement considerably brightened the outlook for the river cleanup, Higgins said. “The restoration of the Buffalo River is very important, and now the final phase of the dredging will be able to go forward,” he said.
The river dredging appeared to be under threat last week when a House appropriations subcommittee voted to trim funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative – which funds the project – from $285 million this year to $60 million in fiscal 2014.
But now, in addition to the EPA saying it has located 2013 funds to pay for that work, House Republicans are backing away from their plans to slash Great Lakes funding for next year.
By voice vote, the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment offered by Republican Reps. David Joyce of Ohio and Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania to provide $210 million for the Great Lakes effort for the coming year.
“This is a big win for the Great Lakes region, but our work isn’t done,” Joyce said.
In fact, the chairman of the subcommittee that originally aimed to slash Great Lakes funding by 80 percent indicated that even more of the funding may be restored as the appropriations bill for interior and environmental programs moves to the House floor.
Saying the $210 million level is still “probably not enough,” Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, added: “We will work to try to get it to a higher level.”
Todd Ambs, campaign director for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition, vowed to do the same.
“This is a welcome step in the right direction,” Ambs said. “We look forward to working with our allies in Congress as the budget process unfolds to restore funding to $300 million.”
Higgins said the Appropriations Committee boosted Great Lakes funding amid signs that “rational members” of the House Republican majority are increasingly concerned about the deep spending cuts that would be necessary under the budget plan they approved just a few months ago.
For example, only a day earlier, GOP leaders pulled from the House floor a bill that would have cut Community Development Block Grant funding in half, as concerns about the cuts jeopardized chances the bill would pass.
Given those trends, Higgins said he will fight to restore all of the Great Lakes funding that Republicans have proposed cutting.
“It’s still not quite where we would like it to be,” he said of the lakes funding.