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Momentum starts to flow on Ottawa River cleanup
Tom Henry
Toledo Blade

The Ottawa River remains one of Ohio’s most polluted streams, yet signs are emerging that better times are ahead for the Toledo-area waterway.

  • One of the most serious efforts to dredge a nonhazardous stretch of the river is afoot, a $2.5 million project that would enhance recreational boating by widening and deepening the riverbed from Summit Street to Maumee Bay’s mouth.

    Long viewed as a pie-in-the-sky dream of Point Place boaters, the idea has been kicked around since the late 1960s but has gained momentum in recent months. Michigan is still a holdout.

  • The ecological benefits of removing a 1928 dam in Ottawa Hills and another old one in West Toledo, near Camp Miakonda, are being considered. Both are relatively small dams, but officials are wondering how much the local fish population could be helped by re-establishing the river’s natural flow.

    Officials acknowledge those are subtle signs of progress, yet say they are encouraged by the paths in which discussions are headed, given how much energy has been spent in the past talking about how to curb the flow of contaminants.

    Ed Hammett, chief of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s northwest district office in Bowling Green, noted how the Maumee Remedial Action Plan’s fifth biennial report about the Ottawa River was the only one over 10 years that did not devote space to the river’s legacy of pollution attributed to hazardous chemicals leaking out of waterfront dumps.

    Millions of dollars have been spent by responsible parties to address that problem.

    Millions more are being spent by the city of Toledo on sewer improvements designed to prevent raw sewage from spilling into the river after heavy rains, in part so that the city can settle a federal EPA lawsuit.

    "Now that these sources are dramatically reduced - I wouldn’t say they’re gone - you can start moving on to other things," said Cherie Blair, the Ohio EPA’s Maumee RAP coordinator. The RAP is a coalition of private and public interests working on restoration plans for the Ottawa, the Maumee, and other Toledo-area waterways.

    Officials conceded some improvements might not have occurred if not for extenuating circumstances. One example: A former eyesore along the river - an unlicensed junkyard - that is being cleaned up and absorbed into a 112-acre industrial park, largely because of the land’s proximity to DaimlerChrysler’s Jeep plant, plus new laws that encourage redevelopment of industrial sites.

    Ms. Blair said the dredging issue started to move beyond pie-in-the-sky status two years ago when preliminary test results showed the area under consideration was probably no more polluted than the Maumee River sediment dredged almost annually to keep Toledo’s commercial shipping channel open.

    Ed Gustek, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager in Buffalo, said the final environmental assessment is due by December.

    The Ottawa may be dredged near Point Place by the fall of 2004, provided adequate funding can be raised and no further complications are encountered. Then it would be a matter of determining if more needs to be done in successive years.

    The biggest holdup appears to be participation from Michigan. U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) has secured federal funds. Toledo has committed to the project. A pitch was made last week to another potential co-sponsor, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

    Frank Nagy, a Monroe County planner, said he is aware of the project but has not approached his county bosses. He expects a lukewarm response, because the county - which invested in the shaky stock market - anticipates a $2.5 million deficit in its annual budget that starts Jan. 1.

    Michigan state officials have not been contacted yet either.

    "Right now, it doesn’t look very good from the Michigan side," Mr. Nagy said.

    Even so, Maumee RAP is upbeat about the river’s future, knowing that it has a long way to go before boaters are endeared to it again and that the community, as a result, embraces restoration efforts to a larger degree.

    The Ohio Department of Health’s longstanding fish consumption and body contact advisories remain intact for much of the river, and neither is likely to be lifted any time soon, officials said.

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