A first-of-its-kind agreement to improve western Lake Erie’s water quality was announced Wednesday by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, one that both sides agree could result in an eventual phase-down of the federal government’s highly controversial practice of redepositing phosphorus-laden sediment from the Toledo shipping channel into the lake’s North Maumee Bay.
The two agencies — at odds over the practice since the 1980s — jointly announced they will use $10 million Gov. John Kasich’s administration made available through the state capital budget to start testing potential engineering solutions this summer. Perhaps more importantly, the agreement allows part of that money to be used to offset the differences between those and the conventional open-lake dumping practice.
For years, Great Lakes scientists and area officials have yearned for ways to prevent the huge volumes of silt dredged annually by the Corps — enough to fill downtown Toledo’s tallest skyscraper three times — from being redeposited in the water.
Ideas have included using the sediment to reclaim Ohio’s vast number of abandoned mines, to cover landfills, to replenish farm fields, to build fish habitats, or to protect wetlands and shorelines. Officials have even considered mixing the dirt with other materials to make bricks.
But none ever got off the drawing table because they weren’t seen as economically viable.
The Corps, which is under federal mandate to keep federal shipping channels open, also is under a federal mandate to do the least expensive option, which is simply dumping the sediment away from the shipping channel, in North Maumee Bay.
But the scientific community and state officials from both parties in Michigan and Ohio — including a long list of governors and state environmental directors — have cried foul.
Scientists claim the practice has exacerbated the lake’s algae problem, destroyed fish habitat, and impaired water quality. Though the sediment is generally clean, they argue it still contains heavy concentrations of algae-growing phosphorus and that the method of disposal itself makes the most fragile part of the Great Lakes too murky.
The long stalemate, coupled with rising concerns about western Lake Erie’s algae problem in the aftermath of a public health emergency last fall, prompted State Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) to court the Kasich administration for $10 million for pilot projects.
A poisonous algae has bloomed almost annually in western Lake Erie since 1995. But the issue gained more prominence last September, when Ottawa County’s Carroll Township became Ohio’s first public water treatment system to be knocked offline by the toxin.
Fishermen and tourism industry officials have been sounding stronger alarms in recent years too.
“We are 100 percent behind this proposal and we appreciate the quick work of the Ohio EPA and Governor John Kasich to move forward and initiate a plan for the beneficial reuse of the dredge material,” Paul Pacholski, Lake Erie Charter Boat Association president, said. “This is a big step toward a healthier ecology in the lake.”
Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins described the agreement as a “noteworthy” development.
Paul Toth, Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority president and chief executive officer, said it ensures the viability of the port, which supports 7,000 jobs and has an annual economic effect of more than $381 million.
A decade ago, the Ohio EPA issued a five-year permit calling for a 20 percent annual reduction in open-lake disposal, the goal being to end the practice by the time that permit expired. The Corps complied with the first year, then got a state board to overturn that decision, as it has gotten its attorneys to overturn others.
The Corps agreed in the joint statement to work with the state agency in seeking economically viable ways to reuse the silt.
Ohio EPA Director Craig Butler said his agency’s goal is to try several demonstration projects moving this dredging season, then hone in on what could be expanded and developed to end open-lake disposal five years from now.
Toledo is the Great Lakes region’s most heavily dredged harbor because it is the shallowest. The latest permit issued to the Corps allows for up to 1.2 million cubic yards of silt to go back into the open water, much more than the average of 800,000 cubic yards in recent years.
“Ohio’s new commitment to finding alternatives to open-lake placement is part of our ongoing efforts toward a cleaner, healthier Lake Erie,” Sen. Gardner said.
Tom Henry - The Blade, Toledo, Ohio (MCT)
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