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State EPA to consider Army Corps silt request
Agency asked to up open-lake disposal
By Tom Henry
Toledo Blade

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spends as much as $6 million a year to keep Toledoís shipping channel clear of silt.

Itís an endless job of digging up the muddy, chemically tainted goop that covers the bed of the Maumee River with everything from automobile engine oil to farm fertilizers that get washed into the stream after each rainstorm.

Few people argue with the need for such dredging: As a major Great Lakes hub for coal, iron ore, grain, and other bulk cargo shipments, the Port of Toledoís impact on the local economy is in excess of $500 million a year, supporting more than 5,000 jobs.

Toledoís harbor is one of the most heavily dredged in the Great Lakes. It hasnít been uncommon for the Corps to dig up 800,000 to 850,000 cubic yards of silt from the channel in recent years.

On average, about 60 percent of the dredged silt returns to the lake. Biologists fear that causes environmental havoc to the valuable fishery, though itís not the most polluted sediment. The other 40 percent - typically, whatís taken out of the heavily polluted inner channel - is buried in a landfill known as a confined disposal facility.

Even with Gov. Bob Taft calling upon Ohio agencies to be more assertive about protecting Lake Erie, the state Environmental Protection Agency appears to be on the verge of allowing even more open-lake silt disposal.

Tomorrow, the Corpsí request for state EPA dredging authorization will be aired during a public information session and hearing at 7 p.m. in Toledo City Council chambers at One Government Center.

The application calls for three times as much open-lake silt disposal as what the Ohio EPA deemed reasonable six months ago, and beyond what the EPA has declared for years as ideal.

The Corps is seeking authorization to dump 600,000 cubic yards of sediment in a part of the lake thatís 31/2 miles northwest of the Toledo Harbor Light, up from 550,000 cubic yards the Ohio EPA authorized in June.

"Yes, it appears to be back-stepping. The numbers donít lie," said Dina Pierce, Ohio EPA spokesman.

A June agreement with the Corps was worded carefully, Ms. Pierce said, because the state agency has urged the Corps to phase out open-lake disposal. The Corps has resisted, citing the huge costs of burying silt.

In exchange for relenting, the Ohio EPA said it expected the Corps to get serious about trimming back on open-lake disposal. It urged the Corps to find a way to limit to 200,000 cubic yards the amount of silt it puts back into the lake.

The Corps appealed the stipulation of that June agreement to the Environmental Review Appeals Commission. That appeal is pending.

But the Corps also has upped its request.

In addition to 600,000 cubic yards it wants to dispose of in Lake Erie, the Corps wants authorization to dredge 350,000 more cubic yards in the heart of the channel.

Thatís 950,000 cubic yards. The June agreement authorized 850,000 cubic yards, of which 300,000 was in the downtown area.

Corps spokesman Patrick Jones said more sediment must be dug to maintain the shipping channel at its current depth because water levels have dropped. "Lake levels go down, you dig deeper, and you have more sediment. Itís that simple," Mr. Jones said.

He said the Corps canít commit itself to phasing out open-lake disposal because of the high cost to develop more confined disposal facilities. Current sites were built by the federal government. State and local agencies will have to share costs of building others, he said.

Andy Buchsbaum, spokesman for the National Wildlife Federationís Great Lakes office in Ann Arbor, said he applauds Mr. Taft, U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine (R., Ohio), and U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio) for trying to help the Great Lakes region secure an unprecedented $6 billion for restoration programs.

"Ohioís senators and governor are showing extraordinary leadership, but theyíre battling the Corps of Engineers," he said.

The Ohio EPA canít impede access to the shipping channel, for the obvious economic benefit the Port of Toledo has on the region. But it hopes it can get the Corps to be more sensitive about open-lake disposal, Ms. Pierce said.

She said securing a major congressional appropriation might help address the issue.

"Itís frustrating a lot of people here," Ms. Pierce said. "Weíre really trying to put some pressure on the Corps to come up with an alternative."

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