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Great Lakes Article:

Silt clogging more than just shipping channels
Dredging's byproduct chokes political solution
By Tom Henry
Toldeo Blade
Published August 15, 2005


Twenty years have passed since the Army Corps of Engineers first irked Michigan and Ohio officials by dumping tons of sediment from the Toledo shipping channel into ecologically fickle western Lake Erie - the Great Lakes region's warmest, shallowest, and most productive area for fish.

Governors of both states cried foul, as have numerous state agency directors. But as frustrations grew over trying to find places to dump the seemingly endless flow of silt each summer, little progress has been made.

So what does the region have to show for all the finger-pointing?

Not much, except more talk and the creation of yet another task force to study the problem.

The Corps, as agency spokesman Patrick Jones said last week, has been "caught between a rock and a hard spot." The problem: money.

From 1972 to 1985, the first 13 years of the United States' landmark Clean Water Act, the Corps put everything it dug from the Toledo shipping channel into a confined disposal facility near Oregon, a multimillion-dollar waterfront landfill.

But in 1985, the Corps made a change. Recognizing a need to conserve space, it reserved the disposal facility for silt that exceeds U.S. EPA pollution standards.

By and large, that's about a third of what the Corps dredges each year. The other two-thirds gets hauled out to open waters, about 3 1/2 miles north of Toledo's shoreline, where it's dumped.

Environmentalists have convinced state officials to be wary of contaminants being redistributed. The open-water dumping, they say, stirs up contaminated lake sediment. The Corps claims the silt it's moving is benign.

Mr. Jones said the Corps is willing to do whatever Michigan and Ohio want, but only if the states come through with more cash.

A new disposal facility would cost at least $14 million and take eight years to build. At least $5 million would have to come from non-federal sources, according to Corps estimates.

In cash-strapped Ohio, few people expect state dollars coming soon. So the status quo remains, with Ohio officials urging the Corps to reuse or recycle the muck. To date, that hasn't proven to be cost-effective.

To settle the latest of several legal challenges, the Ohio EPA backed down last month from what may have been the most restrictive disposal permit it had ever issued to the Corps.

That permit, issued in 2004, required the Corps to phase down open lake disposal by 20 percent a year so that the practice would end for good in five years. State agency officials said that was done to "force the issue."

But the Friday after the permit was announced, an outraged Corps threatened to halt plans to dredge Toledo's shipping channel, which would have had dire consequences for the region.

Though Toledo is the Great Lakes region's sixth largest port, it receives the most dredging because its shallow channel gets filled in each year by soil from northwest Ohio farms that ends up in the Maumee River.

By the following Monday, the Corps had reconsidered its move. It relented and did the 2004 dredging. But it said the issue was far from settled.

It took its case to the Environmental Review Appeals Commission, the state panel that has the power to overturn Ohio EPA decisions. In an agreement reached July 14, the Corps agreed to phase out open lake disposal by 2013.

A task force consisting of the Corps, the Ohio EPA, and the Ohio DNR will study the potential of using silt to build undefined "habitat restoration units" at Little Cedar Point, Turtle Creek, or other areas.

The Corps is to spend $10,000 on an initial study and another $1.2 million on a broader feasibility study. It will also commit $2.4 million to engineering and design. But Ohio will still have to come up with money to cover 25 percent of the construction costs for any such habitat units.

"The problem is it doesn't hold anybody's feet to the fire," said lake activist Sandy Bihn. "It sounds like this agreement is just another series of studies for a project that won't work."

Ernie Neal, a Columbus businessman urging the state to fill in abandoned eastern Ohio mines with dredged material, said he fears that bureaucrats are "dragging their feet big-time."

The Ohio EPA was closely watching a test project to the east, where silt from New York and New Jersey was used to reclaim a mine in central Pennsylvania. Results from that test last year led to Pennsylvania's first permit for general disposal of harbor silt in a mine.

Mr. Neal said if the numbers add up in Pennsylvania, they should add up in Ohio.

Dina Pierce, Ohio EPA spokesman, said her agency hasn't given up on reclaiming mines with Toledo silt. "I'm sure we're going to be revisiting this as time progresses," she said. "But there's a limited pool of money."

The July 14 compromise leaves the pace for phasing out open lake disposal up to the Corps and doesn't rule out another appeal in 2013.

Even so, Ms. Pierce said the Ohio EPA believes it got its point across with last year's permit.

"Yes, we're backing off enforcing the increased percentages, but a time line's set up. I think there's more common sense [in the new agreement]," she said.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.


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