Stimulus has billions for clean water, parks |

Stimulus has billions for clean water, parks

AP PhotoRidge after ridge of the Great Smoky Mountains is seen from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Bryson City, N.C. The approximately 20 million visitors who travel the parkway each year could have a smoohther ride when Congress passes the economic stimulus package.

WASHINGTON ” The 20 million visitors who travel the Blue Ridge Parkway each year could have a smoother drive along a stretch of the scenic road in North Carolina.

Across the nation, some of the 102,798 leaks at storage tanks beneath gasoline stations could finally be cleaned up.

And a network of gauges used to predict floods along America’s streams and rivers across the country might get enough funding to literally stay afloat.

These are just some of the environmental projects that could be funded when Congress passes the economic stimulus package.

The plan includes more than $9 billion for the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. The money would be used to shutter abandoned mines on public lands, to help local governments protect drinking water supplies, and to erect energy-efficient visitor centers at wildlife refuges and national parks.

The Interior Department estimates that its portion of the work would generate about 100,000 jobs over the next two years.

“Most of the construction work we do, whether it is major repairs or building a visitor center ” those are all contracted out,” said Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman with the National Park Service. That means private firms would handle the projects, not state or federal workers.

Yet the legislation will not go very far when it comes to erasing the backlog of cleanups facing the EPA and the long list of chores that still need to be completed at the country’s national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands. It would be more like a down payment.

The refuge system, an assemblage of more than 150 million acres set aside to protect wildlife, fish and plants, has a $2.5 billion maintenance backlog. The stimulus bill would provide $300 million, enough to cover the more than 600 projects on its to-do list in the next couple of years.

When it comes to national parks, the plan sets aside about $750 million for road repairs and maintenance. But that’s a fraction of the $9 billion worth of work needing funding. The projects include fixing a visitor center at the Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah-Colorado border that has been condemned for two years and upgrading a sewage treatment plant at Yellowstone National Park that can’t handle the number of flushes from visitors to Old Faithful.

At EPA, the wish list is even more expensive. A 2003 report by the agency estimated that $276.8 billion was needed over the next 20 years to repair and improve the nation’s drinking water systems. The stimulus package includes around $6 billion, and more than half of the money would be used to fund projects that protect bays, rivers and other waterways used as sources of drinking water.

Other big-ticket items at the EPA include about $200 million for a fund that is used to remove soil and groundwater contamination caused by leaky gasoline storage tanks and an estimated $600 million for cleanups at the nation’s most hazardous waste sites.

In 2008, according to agency documents, the EPA ran out of money and could not take additional steps to address contamination at 10 sites in nine states.

More than 100,000 spills under gasoline stations need cleaning. But at a cost of about $125,000 each, according to EPA estimates, the stimulus money will only be able to pay for roughly 1,600 of them.

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