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Disposal option for silt spurs local hopes
Lake dredgings used to restore coal mine

By Tom Henry
Toledo Blade

A market for Toledo's muck?
Strange as that sounds, it's a possibility that has generated some excitement among Ohio's environmental regulators. Their hope is that much of the silt dredged from Great Lakes shipping channels, such as Toledo's, could be used someday to solve environmental problems rather than being dumped in other parts of the lakes.

Although the concept is in its early review stages in Ohio, officials said they are intrigued by what appear to be promising results of a central Pennsylvania pilot study.

In that study, an abandoned mine was restored primarily by a mix of silt and coal ash. Silt hauled to the site, called the Bark Camp Demonstration Project in Clearfield County, was dredged from New York and New Jersey waters shortly after the project was initiated in 1995. Cement kiln dust, lime kiln dust, or other products occasionally are added to harden the mix. The result was a fill with low permeability that's resistant to acid, allowing rainwater to flow off the site.

A report issued in December claimed nearby water became no worse and, in some respects, even improved. Trout in a nearby stream were deemed safe to eat on an unlimited basis, whereas in most parts of the state they have enough contaminants to prompt an advisory of one meal per week to be in effect.

The study was done by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and a New York-New Jersey legislative commission called COAST, which stands for Clean Ocean And Shore Trust.

"It's just been a tremendous, tremendous success," Andrew Voros, COAST spokesman, told The Blade last week.

The possibilities are attractive to Ohio officials, who long have been irked by the tons of silt the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dumps in western Lake Erie - the warmest, shallowest, and most ecologically fickle part of the Great Lakes. When conditions are ideal, western Lake Erie also is the most plentiful for fish reproduction, which makes it a multibillion-dollar resource for sport fishermen and tourists.

Toledo has the system's most-dredged channel. Records show the Corps plans to dredge three times more silt from Toledo this year than Cleveland, which has the second-most-dredged channel.

The Corps insists that it does not put silt polluted by heavy industrial chemicals back into the lake. That material, about a third of the total, is mostly dug from the Toledo harbor. It gets buried in a special waterfront landfill near Oregon called a confined disposal facility.

But the sheer volume of what gets dumped into the lake disturbs state officials, because of how it stirs up the water column.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has been trying to get the Corps to phase out open-lake disposal for years, at times even questioning the cleanliness of silt that gets dumped.

In a Feb. 2 letter to Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Ohio Gov. Bob Taft said the legal definition of contamination "is very much at the heart of this contentious issue." He further stated that placing dredged material in such a shallow part of Lake Erie "where it can be spread by wind and current action is counterproductive to our efforts to restore this Great Lake."

Corps officials were not available Friday to comment about the potential applicability of the Pennsylvania study to this region, but they have said in the past they are receptive to practical alternatives. Their reliance on open-lake disposal, which dates back to 1985, is largely cost-related: Dumping silt that falls within U.S. EPA chemistry limits for cleanliness is far cheaper than building enough landfills, they said.

The material is dumped in Lake Erie, 3 1/2 miles northwest of Toledo Harbor Light. New confined disposal facilities would cost $14 million and take eight years to build in today's market, the Corps has said.

Transportation costs for moving wet, heavy silt easily can run into the millions of dollars. Northwest Ohio has some limestone mines. But the bulk of the state's mining activity is coal in the Appalachia region, a drive of several hours from the Toledo area.

The Ohio EPA and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the latter of which regulates Ohio's abandoned mines, haven't even begun to come up with meaningful cost estimates, Dina Pierce, Ohio EPA spokesman, said.

But officials believe it's an issue worth investigating.

"You have to dredge the harbor. But, boy, if you could avoid open-lake disposal, that'd be great," Ms. Pierce said.

The fate of such a project likely will come down to its feasibility and attractiveness to the private sector. Oregon activist Sandy Bihn, who also has urged the Corps to find other solutions, said the idea of using dredged material to reclaim mine land sounds "wonderful." She said her group, the Maumee Bay Association, supports aggressive research.

Pennsylvania's environmental regulators took a step forward March 2 by issuing a general permit for the beneficial use of dredged sediment, coal ash, cement kiln dust, and lime kiln dust in mine reclamation to Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co. The permit could make it possible for Lehigh to use those products in the reclamation of the company's Springdale Pit in Schuylkill County.

"The permit is a result of eight years of hard work, demonstrating that dredged sediments can be used safely and beneficially," said J. Frederick Grassle, director of the Institute of Marine & Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University and formerly of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

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