Silt clogging more than just shipping
Dredging's byproduct chokes political solution
By Tom Henry
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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: email@example.com or 419-724-6079.