The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency last week issued a water quality certification to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that allows for the disposal of up to 800.000 cubic yards of dredged sediment from the Toledo Harbor into the open lake.
The amount allowed to be dumped in the open lake this year is more than in previous years, but less than the 1.25 million cubic yards that the Corps had requested.
“While they reduced the quantities to 800,000 cubic yards, last year they put in 740,000 cubic yards in the open lake,” Oregon Council member Sandy Bihn said of the Corps at council’s committee of the whole meeting last Monday. “So the current allowance would be for that much to be in the open lake again. A lot of us are worried because the water levels are down. We think that this could be an imminent threat to the lake.”
Bihn, who is also Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper, has been opposed to open lake disposal of dredged sediment for 15 years.
“Some of us would like to see 50 percent go into a Confined Disposal Facility (CDF). I’ll be working on that,” she said.
The water quality certification is only for one year rather than the three years requested by the Corps so that the Ohio EPA can continue working on alternatives to open lake dumping with the Corps and its state and local partners, including the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), according to Dina Pierce, Northwest District Media Coordinator with the Ohio EPA.
Toledo is the shallowest and most heavily dredged port in the Great Lakes. The Corps dredges the port annually to keep the U.S. navigation channel open for shipping. Dredging is conducted in the lower seven miles of the Maumee River and 19 miles of the approach channel in Maumee Bay.
Ohio EPA Director Chris Korleski has concerns about the environmental impacts of open lake disposal.
“While I certainly feel compelled to keep the port functioning, I cannot overstate my concerns about the environmental impacts likely resulting from the annual disposal of large amounts of sediment in the shallow western basin of Lake Erie,” said Korleski.
In an April 15 letter to the Corps, Korleski and ODNR Director Sean Logan expressed the need to seek a feasible alternative to open lake disposal. They noted that while open lake disposal may be the most cost-efficient option for the Corps, the real costs to communities in the Western Basin resulting from environmental impacts, lake recreation and drinking water treatment, while difficult to calculate, are not adequately being considered.
“Certainly, we must mention the specific ecological issues of concern like algae blooms, light penetration and the potential impact on fish spawning. But even more fundamentally, it seems decidedly ironic for us to continue the current practice of open lake disposal of sediment while federal, state, and local governments are spending untold sums of money and enacting numerous regulations and ordinances to prevent soil and nutrients from entering and negatively impacting our waterways,” states the letter. “This is especially so when the current disposal process consists of actually removing sediments from the harbor and bringing them `topside,” only to then dump and re-entrain the sediments even further out in the very shallow Western Basin of Lake Erie. Such re-entrainment of dredged material seems to directly contradict every soil conservation program, non-point source pollution prevention program, nutrient loading prevention program, and stormwater pollution prevention program that exists today. Common sense would suggest that we should be making every effort to act in accordance with what we require of others and spend public dollars to achieve. In short, Ohio EPA and ODNR strongly believe that a less environmentally harmful way of dealing with the dredged sediments must be found, funded, and implemented.”
Additionally, the Ohio EPA and ODNR ask the Corps whether certain interim steps could lessen the impact of open lake disposal while work continues to find and fund long-term solutions. Those steps could involve delaying the beginning of open lake disposal until later in the year, when cooler temperatures will help reduce the presence and extent of harmful algae blooms (HAB) and disposing of some clean sediment in the CDF without significantly jeopardizing the intended life span of the facility while they focus on finding, funding, and implementing an alternative disposal method. Currently, only sediment too contaminated for open lake disposal is placed in the CDF, up to 100,000 cubic yards per year.
“We cannot state our belief any more clearly: Open lake disposal of these huge quantities of dredged sediment in the Western Basin of Lake Erie is not environmentally acceptable to the state of Ohio and needs to be discontinued,” the letter continued. “Instead, we must seek and find a way to eliminate open lake disposal and manage the sediment in an environmentally acceptable manner.”
“Our director knows he has to allow the harbor to be dredged so it stays open for shipping,” said Pierce. “However, he wants them to get on the ball and actually get a solution, so we’re going to sit down this year and try to find viable alternatives.”
In the past, Lake Erie didn’t appear to be as threatened as it is now by open lake dumping of dredged material, Bihn told The Press last week.
“Given the algae in Lake Erie now, people feel differently. The lake appears to be coming to a tipping point again where something really bad could happen in terms of where the fish may not be multiplying. We just don’t know. Certainly, open lake dumping is not the primary cause of the algae. It’s caused primarily by agricultural run-off. But adding anything to it, like open lake dumping, aggravates it. People now agree that open lake dumping is something we should not be doing. So we need a long-term solution.”
Bihn said she is particularly concerned about problems this summer because Lake Erie’s level is nine inches lower than in 2009.
“Last year, 740,000 cubic yards of dredged material dumped in the open lake was the highest in decades. And we had the worse algae problem we’ve had for years. So some of us are worried that this summer, with less water to process, if it’s a little warmer than last summer, the situation could be worse than in 2009, when it was really bad.”
While Bihn said she is frustrated by the increased amount of dredged material that the Corps will dump in the open lake this year, she is encouraged by the serious tone of Korleski’s and Logan’s letter to the Corps."