Conservation groups are challenging the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s decision last month to issue 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 National Wildlife Federation, the Ohio Environmental Council, the Lake Erie Charterboat Association, the Izaak Walton League, and the Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association recently filed an appeal with the Ohio Environmental Review Appeals Commission (ERAC).
The groups say that dumping dredged sediments into the Western Basin of Lake Erie harms water quality, fish and aquatic habitat. The practice, which also exacerbates harmful algae blooms in the lake, increase costs to cities, businesses and people stemming from environmental damage and impacts to fishing, boating, water recreation and drinking water supplies.
“Open lake dumping harms the environment and the economy. It should not go forward,” said Neil Kagan, senior attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, which filed the challenge with ERAC. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers need to go back to the drawing board and come up with a solution that keeps the Port of Toledo open, while protecting Lake Erie and the millions of people who depend on it for drinking water, fishing, recreation, and their way of life. We can do better than this.”
“We’re past the point where it is acceptable to treat Lake Erie as a receptacle for our waste,” said Sandy Bihn, Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association and an Oregon Council member.
“We can maintain Toledo Harbor and protect the health of Lake Erie at the same time – but not under the current proposal. It’s time to put forward solutions that support maritime commerce and maintain this freshwater resource,” she said.
“The lake keeps getting greener and greener from the algae,” said Bihn, who has been opposed to open lake dumping of dredged sediment for 15 years. “Studies in 2009 showed that turbidity, which is dirt and water, helps the algae in the lake to grow. So the amount of sediments going into the open lake from dredging has gone up, with 2009 the worst ever. It’s definitely contributing to the problem. We shouldn’t be making the problem worse by open lake dumping. It doesn’t make sense to me why everyone thinks we shouldn’t do it, and then we just keep going on and doing it. There are places to put it temporarily. It just seems that everyone is finding an excuse not to while the lake keeps getting greener and greener. It costs the water plants more to treat the water, it harms the fish population, it causes a dead zone in the central basin of Lake Erie. This is what happened in the 60s and 70s that caused everyone to say that Lake Erie was dying.”
Ohio EPA Director Chris Korleski, in a letter to the Corps on April 15, expressed the need to seek a feasible alternative to open lake dumping.
“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. Instead, we must seek and find a way to eliminate open lake disposal and manage the sediment in an environmentally acceptable manner,” stated Korleski.
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).
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.
“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,” stated Korleski.
“We need a permanent solution, and move aggressively toward it,” said Bihn. “I’m on a dredge committee, and we are pursuing alternatives. People have said they are going to do something for the last 15 years, and nothing’s happened.”