Lake Erie Proposal Dredges Up Controversy
In order to maintain open navigation channels for ships, sediment buildup in waterways has to be scooped out periodically through a process known as dredging. In the Great Lakes states, 60 commercial ports rely on this practice. When dredged material is contaminated, it raises questions about how to dispose of it safely. The Cuyahoga River in northeast Ohioâknown for catching fire in the 1960sârelies on frequent dredging. The standard practice has been to put the river muck in confined disposal facilities (CDFs). But now thereâs a controversial new proposal on the table to dump the dredged material into Lake Erie, a source of drinking water for more than 11 million people. Every year nearly 13 million tons of iron ore, limestone, cement, and salt are hauled into the Port of Cleveland and unloaded. This commerce supports more than 17,000 jobs, all of which depend on the shipping channel remaining clear. Sediment naturally flows downstream with the current, and when it does it clogs things up. To keep the channel open, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removes enough sediment each year to fill a stadium (approximately 250,000 cubic yards). âThe question is then what to do with the spoils, what to do with what you dredge up from the bottom. So weâve constantly got this, not âWhereâs Waldo?â but âWhere to Put Waldo?ââ? said Eric Fitch, an environmental science professor at Marietta College. Traditionally, itâs been put in confined disposal facilities near the Erie shore. Now the Army Corps, the agency charged with maintaining the nationâs navigation channels, wants to dump it into the open lake instead. Fitch said this might be a reasonable plan, though heâd like to see some pilot testing first. Other Great Lakes harbors already submerge their dredged material in fresh water. As much as 50 percent of dredged Great Lakes sediment is placed in the open lake, once it is determined to be largely free of contaminants. Some states, including Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, have attempted to ban the practice due to concerns about lingering sediment contamination. Some northeast Ohio residents, environmental groups, and politicians vocally oppose this idea of lake dumping and say itâs an ill-advised cost-cutting measure. âWe have no idea at this point how it will contaminate the water process [or] what weâll have to do to add additional chemicals and treatments,â? said Cleveland council member Michael Polensek at a recent public hearing held by the Ohio EPA. Long-time resident George Havens also testified at the meeting. âIâve been living in Cleveland for 89 years and drinking this water. Iâd like to continue to drink it a little bit longer. Dumping anything into the lake is unscientific, unimaginative, uncivilized, and barbaric,â? he said. The Great Lakes basin has a long history of industrial pollution, and some of those pollutants, like PCBs, PAHs, heavy metals, DDT, and its metabolite DDE, persist in the buried sediment. Current urban and agricultural runoff also contributes to the problem. The Army Corps says according to their tests on the Cuyahoga River, the sediment in the proposed dredging location is not as contaminated as it used to be. But they have faced pushback not only from citizens and NGOs but also from the Ohio EPA. âAt the end of the day they need to meet the Ohio EPA water quality standards,â? said Ohio EPA Northeast Office District Chief Kurt Princic, âand we donât feel thatâs being met.â? The Ohio EPA has to sign off on the Army Corps proposal before it can move forward. Princic says theyâre concerned because the dredged material would be dumped close to the cityâs drinking water intake valves. Fish toxicity is another concern. They also question the methods by which the Army Corps arrived at their conclusion that the sediment is safe enough to put in the lake. Mike Asquith, dredging program manager for the Army Corpsâs Buffalo District, said the sampling methods employed were appropriate for the situation. âAll the material there is recent and storm-derived. Itâs not a situation where you have legacy contamination over years of material being placed there,â? he said. University of Akron geoscientist John Peck reviewed the Corpsâs methodology, and is still on the fence about whether this is a good idea or not. One outstanding question for him was why didnât they take samples from deeper down, where they would be dredging? âI just wonder, because youâll vary the floods, youâll vary the type of sediment, youâll vary the contaminants, maybe one should just take a sediment core,â? Peck said. Concerns like this have environmental groups calling for the Ohio EPA to put the brakes on the plan and allow for further review of the science and a discussion of other disposal options. While the Army Corps is required to deal with the material in the least expensive environmentally acceptable manner, there are other options for it. It could be stored more efficiently at the current confined disposal sites and eke out, by some estimates, another 20 years of storage. Or it could be remediated and put to beneficial use. For instance, Green Bay, Wisconsin, uses dredged material to reconstruct a series of barrier islands, creating habitat for pelicans, cormorants, and other species. Grand Haven, Michigan, mixes their dredged material with composted municipal yard waste to create topsoil. Chicago has also experimented with reuse with their âMud to Parksâ? project. At the Port of Duluth-Superior in Minnesota and Wisconsin, dredged material replaces fill dirt on construction sites, and itâs also used in asphalt production. And even Cleveland has a history of putting it to beneficial use: Dike 14 Nature Preserve is made up of material dredged from the Cuyahoga in the past. A decision is expected from Ohio EPA by the end of March as to whether material from the Cuyahoga River will be allowed in Lake Erie. Rejecting this proposal would send the Army Corps of Engineers back to the drawing board to find another place to put this seasonâs cache of muck.