Toledo’s sewage sludge is hauled from the city’s Bayview Wastewater Treatment Plant in Point Place to a man-made island in Oregon called Facility 3. There, a company named S&L Fertilizer makes a dirt-like product, Nu-Soil, from 10 parts sludge, 2 parts lime, and 88 parts silt that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers previously dumped on the island.
Earth’s warming climate leaves environmental regulators no room for error in evaluating how S&L Fertilizer produces Nu-Soil. Nearly all of the silt that has come to Facility 3 since 1985 was too contaminated to go back into the water. Such sites aren’t built often, because they are so costly to maintain.
Facility 3 is in western Lake Erie’s Maumee Bay, the most fertile spawning grounds for the Great Lakes region’s $7 billion a year fishing industry. Thousands of jobs depend on the lake’s water quality.
Because it is so shallow, western Lake Erie is highly vulnerable to the effects of oxygen-depleting algae that kill fish. Under the best of circumstances, it’s hard to keep phosphorus and other nutrients that grow algae out of the water.
Because of last year’s severe heat and drought, Great Lakes water levels are at or near record lows. Dredging likely will occur this summer to keep Toledo’s shipping channel open to large cargo vessels.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency is considering a request by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge as much as 1.5 million cubic yards of silt from the shipping channel in 2013 — about 150,000 truckloads, and up from the 1.1 million cubic yards the Corps was authorized to dredge in 2012.
Before that, the Corps dredged 800,000 to 900,000 cubic yards a year. It puts about 10 percent of what it digs into Facility 3.
More dredging means more silt dumped in western Lake Erie’s open water — a practice long scorned by fishery biologists — as well as greater pressure to keep nutrients from flowing off Facility 3 and other shorelines. There also will be greater pressure to free up Facility 3’s limited storage space.
The Corps began open-lake disposal 28 years ago because of shrinking capacity at all confined disposal facilities, including Facility 3. The costs for new facilities start at about $200 million.
Federal rules require at least 35 percent of those costs to come from nonfederal sources, such as the State of Ohio and City of Toledo. That won’t happen, given budget constraints.
Unless the federal government rewrites its rules and pays a lot more than 65 percent — which is equally as unlikely — it had better make sure the U.S. EPA conducts a thorough review of S&L’s practices, as well as anything that has the potential to increase algae-inducing nutrient levels in western Lake Erie. The Ohio EPA must be equally vigilant.
Ships move cargo more efficiently than any other mode of transportation, generating fewer climate-altering greenhouse gases. Less shipping is not an option.
But neither is more toxic algae. State and federal regulators, as well as the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, need to keep a close watch on activities at Facility 3.