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Published: Sunday, 8/8/2004

The drudgery of dredging

Dredging the Toledo harbor and its 25-mile shipping channel is a big and dirty job, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is bound by federal law to do it. A major chunk of the regional economy depends on $1.37 billion worth of goods and materials shuttled in and out of Toledo via ship each year. At least 7,000 jobs are at stake.

Ships handle more than 3 million tons of iron ore for the steel industry, 4.7 million tons of coal to generate electric power, and more than 1 million tons of agricultural products from area farms.

Given these facts, it is imperative that the Corps - Uncle Sam's public-projects arm - develop a new plan to complete the annual dredging task while depositing as little silt as possible in the open lake.

Such a plan won't be easy to come up with and doubtless will be expensive. But a solution is necessary to finally end the official stalemate over the two-decade-old practice of open-lake disposal, which state officials claim roils up the shallow western end of the lake and endangers the $200 million sport fishing industry.

Some 835,000 cubic yards of dredged material is removed each year from the harbor and the ship channel, which extends down the Maumee River and out into Lake Erie. Silt from the bottom of the inner harbor, which is likely to be contaminated with various toxic substances, is dumped into a federally approved "confined disposal facility," which juts out from the shore just east of the mouth of the Maumee.

The other material, about two-thirds of the total, is deposited in an area of the open lake 2 miles long and a mile wide that lies 3 1/2 miles northwest of the Toledo Harbor Light in Ohio waters.

While Corps officials contend that open-lake dumping does not harm the lake because the silt meets U.S. EPA criteria for cleanliness, the practice has some powerful opposition: the governors of both Michigan and Ohio, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and various environmental and conservation groups.

Earlier this year, the Ohio EPA gave the Corps a five-year permit to continue dredging but decreed that open-lake dumping must end by 2013.

Whether the silt is contaminated is not the issue, according to Governor Taft, who says that dumping the sediment in the shallow end of the lake "where it can be spread by wind and current action is counterproductive to our efforts to restore this Great Lake." Governor Granholm, meanwhile, has vowed to fight similar practices being considered for Lake Michigan.

While the Corps fights what it contends are wrongheaded "misperceptions" about open-lake dumping, the confined disposal area is 60 percent full. Agency officials claim there is no federal money for building another facility (estimated cost: $14 million) and there's no feasible near-term market for using the sediment for any other purpose.

Those are reasonable concerns, but governing a vast country such as ours is all about setting priorities for the public money we spend. Logically, maintaining the health of Lake Erie for commerce, recreation, and as a clean drinking water supply for millions of regional residents ought to be a given.

Unfortunately, those who hold the purse strings in Washington these days seem more concerned with rebuilding foreign nations than preserving our own.



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