Water-quality law dredges up unrest

The practice of dredging barge-loads of silt, sand, and clay from the bottom of Lake Erie, Maumee Bay, and Maumee River shipping channels and dumping it elsewhere in the lake has been a target of environmentalists fordecades.

And for that same period of time, it has been stubbornly and successfully defended by the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority because of its importance in maintaining the Toledo port’s economic vitality.

The balance of power changed early last August when lake water drawn into Toledo’s drinking-water intake five miles offshore became so overwhelmed with harmful algae blooms that Toledo water consumers were advised not to drink city water for 56 hours.

Since then, state lawmakers, pressured to respond to public demands to protect Toledo’s water supply, have ordered restrictions on farm fertilizer and manure from washing off fields and feedlots into the Maumee River and ultimately into Lake Erie.

Those restrictions were enacted in Senate Bill 1, which Gov. John Kasich signed April 2 at Maumee Bay State Park. Rolled into that law was a five-year deadline to end open-lake disposal by 2020.

Since then, Lucas County’s two representatives in Congress, Democrat Marcy Kaptur of Toledo and Republican Bob Latta of Bowling Green, have co-sponsored legislation to ban open-lake disposal at the federal level.

The movement to ban open-lake disposal is coming as a shock to the 13-member port authority board of directors.

At its most recent meeting, board Vice President James Tuschman said large ships that use Toledo’s 17 river and bay terminals need a deep draft, and the only way to maintain that draft is by dredging the shipping channel.

“You’re not going to get the ships with heavy loads to come in here,” Mr. Tuschman said, calling the prospect of reducing or eliminating dredging serious.

Board member Opie Rollison said, “I’ve not seen the data that would indicate that the dredging is a major cause of the algae blooms in the lake.” He added he’d be the first to call for an end to the practice because, “I live here and drink the water.”

“How long would it take before ships can’t come up the Maumee to unload? I don’t think long,” Mr. Rollison said.

Every summer, usually beginning in late August, dredge barges hired by the Army Corps of Engineers begin scraping the Toledo Harbor shipping channel across Maumee Bay and up the river to maintain a 28-foot draft for heavily laden ships to put in at the Port of Toledo. The barges are towed a few miles out in the lake, where the dredged material is dumped over the side.

The Corps of Engineers removes about 800,000 to 1 million cubic yards of material from the channel every year. If it didn’t, the channel would get shallower and ships would be forced to lighten their loads. Eventually, they might quit using Toledo’s port, officials fear.

Shipping is a big employer for Toledo, accounting for about 7,000 jobs, and the need for dredging is greater in Toledo than any other Great Lakes port. Paul Toth, Jr., the port authority’s president and chief executive, said Toledo accounts for about 25 percent of all dredging in the Great Lakes.

Bayfront and river terminals handle up to 700 vessels a year and 10 million to 12 million tons of cargo, according to Joe Cappel, director of cargo development for the port. Products shipped through the port include coal, iron ore, grain, stone, cement, aluminum, steel, and petroleum.

Environmentalists and sport fishermen have complained about the practice of dumping enough sediment to fill the 32-story Fifth Third Center Building in downtown Toledo into the open lake.

But port officials say they have seen no proof that open-lake dumping damages the environment. And more importantly, neither has the Corps of Engineers, which refuses to pay for anything other than the lowest-cost option, open-lake disposal, which costs the corps about $5 million a year.

Other solutions, such as pumping or trucking those million cubic yards of sediment up onto dry land, would at least double or even triple the cost of dredging the harbor.

Not only does the corps and the port authority contend there’s no solid evidence of harmful impact from dredging, they say the only scientific study vindicates the practice’s safety.

“It’s an easy target,” Mr. Toth said. “The only science that we’re aware of is the Limno Tech study that was done in 2013 and released in 2014. I’ve seen no other science that provides an evidence that open-lake disposal has environmental effects.”

The study he referred to is a 509-page document released in August, 2014, by Limno Tech of Ann Arbor. The study concluded: “Weight-of-evidence from the cumulative findings of this study indicates that the open-lake placement of Toledo Harbor dredged material has no measurable impact on HABs [harmful algae blooms] in the Western Lake Erie Basin.”

The $621,000 study was commissioned by the Corps of Engineers as a condition of its permit from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

“We don’t want the unintended consequences of these bills to hamper shipping out of the Port of Toledo,” Mr. Toth said.

Opponents of open-lake disposal say open-lake dumping can’t help but stir up contaminants and nutrients lying at the bottom of the river and bay. They note the Corps of Engineers dumps its dredged material in the same shallow location every year, but there’s no “mountain” of sediment there — proof that it moves around.

Jeff Reutter, special adviser for Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University Stone Laboratory, said the Ohio EPA has a long history of trying to shut down open-lake disposal.

“If you’re going to do open-lake disposal you want to do it in a place that it’s going to stay there. The problem with the location in Toledo is it’s 22 feet deep. It’s not deep enough. When you put the material there, you can’t guarantee it’s going to stay there,” Mr. Reutter said.

He also said the “turbidity” caused by dredging contributes to harmful algae blooms.

However, the dredging typically takes place after the worst of the algae blooms. Last year, the corps started dredging Sept. 12, about six weeks after the algae bloom that forced Toledo drinking-water consumers to find other sources.

State Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), Senate Bill 1’s prime sponsor, agreed that not dredging is not an option. He said the 2020 ban on open-lake disposal and exemptions in the law are an incentive to find beneficial alternative methods for disposing of dredged material. The state has already put up $7.35 million to help Toledo promote alternative uses.

“It is essentially a ban but it allows for some flexibility. We believe there are better uses for dredged material. We think that’s better for the health of the lake,” Mr. Gardner said. “I do not believe that open-lake disposal is a major cause [of harmful algae blooms] but it is a contributing factor. We know there’s phosphorus and nitrogen. We do think there are beneficial alternative uses and we’re going to keep working toward that goal.”

Port board members said that they have started planning in case the state actually bans open-lake disposal, threatening one of Toledo’s biggest economic engines.

During its April 23 meeting, the port board voted to move ahead with developing a 16-acre site along the river to conduct a pilot study of using dredged materials on agricultural land. The board voted to hire Hull and Associates as construction manager, at a cost of $480,176. The project will create a demonstration “farm” on the former Riverside Park in downtown Toledo to show how sediment can be used to grow crops.


Photo: Ohio Governor John Kasich and State Senator Randy Gardner sign Senate Bill 1, the legislation to protect Lake Erie and Ohio’s water quality, during a ceremony on April 2.

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