Central New York, Education, Environment

Budget Cuts to EPA Could Hit Home in Central New York

Many projects, such as education grants and the clean-up on Onondaga Lake Park, could take a hit with President Drumpf's new budget proposal. Syracuse University Director of Sustainability Education Rachel May explained what could be affected and what could change.

By Nicole Hansen SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — Onondaga Lake, the most polluted lake in the United States, could be in even more danger due to new budget cuts to the Environment Protection Agency, or EPA.

According to CNN, President Trump announced his new budget proposal, which could cut the EPA’s budget by almost a quarter, a move that would hit home to Central New York.

Many projects, like the clean up of Onondaga Lake, are at least partially funded by grants from the EPA. According to Rachel May, Director of Sustainability Education at Syracuse University, this could lead to a lot of issues for the project, which has already made a lot of progress.

“Onondaga Lake was so polluted and smelled so bad, you didn’t want to be anywhere near it,” May said. “And now, it is a gem of the area. There’s still pollution in the water, but the area around it has really been restored, and it’s become a real magnet for recreation.”

May was part of a group that was awarded a grant in 2016 to create a curriculum to teach children about the history and meaning of Onondaga Lake to the Onondaga people. She said she wanted to focus on the indigenous knowledge of the lake.

“The Onondaga Nation has had a really deep relationship to the lake, for at least a thousand years,” she said. “They’ve been really involved with the clean up efforts to restore the lake, to something more like what their ancestors would have recognized.”

This knowledge base was focused on the idea of gratitude, and what that word means to the Onondaga people.

“We’ve been trying to see if you start teaching not just about a place that kids care about, but teaching gratitude as a driving force in learning about it, does that help people to really feel connected to their place?” May explained.

The curriculum has been getting a lot of positive feedback since it was implemented, especially from students.

“Now that [the teachers] have been able to take their kids on a field trip to the lake, and use some of the lesson plans that we developed, they’re saying that their students have gotten really excited by these ideas, that they see the lake in a different light, they’re thinking really differently about how you learn and apply knowledge about the natural world,” May said.

This is just one of the many programs in Syracuse, and in Central New York, that receive at least partial funding from the EPA. And May said that grant is crucial to creating programs like this one.

“The EPA Environmental Education Grants are really important,” May said. “It’s hard to imagine really doing this kind of work without the EPA.”

Formerly a Russian Literature professor, May found her passion for the environment after she received a grant to study the national park system in Russia. From there, she developed an interest in the human interaction with the environment.

“It’s not like [humans] are somehow above, or more important, or smarter, or anything else than the natural world,” she said. “We’re brothers and sisters with the non-human world, and we need to work together with other species and systems.”

Despite her concerns, May did say there was potential for positive to come out of President Drumpf’s new budget plan.

“The military intelligence, hierarchy in America, has concluded pretty certainly that climate change is the number one threat to our security globally,” she explained. “So if the military is given discretion in how it uses the additional money it’s being offered, and they use it to combat climate change, that would be, in some ways, maybe more effective than specifically environmental organizations or agencies doing the same thing. Because the military can make a huge difference around the world.”

With so much controversy surrounding the EPA and the services it provides, May said she just wants people to remember that the country wasn’t always so divided on the EPA’s value to society.

“I do hope that people are aware [that] the EPA was created in a bi-partisan way out of a nation-wide…push to do something about environmental protection,” she said. “People in…the early 1970s understood very clearly that this needed to be done.

“Republicans, Democrats, young people, old people, everybody understood it. It was not really even very controversial at the time…It’s had enormous successes, but the enormous successes have happened because of persistent work.”

Onondaga Lake Park has changed for the better since the clean-up on Onondaga Lake started. (c) 2017 Nicole Hansen