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Published: Sunday, 6/19/2011

Session signals new course in dredging dialogue

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE COLUMNIST

Flying under last week’s news radar was a brainstorming session — the first of its kind — in which the public began offering ideas to stop or at least reduce the federal government’s 25-year-old practice of dumping of dredged material in western Lake Erie’s fragile Maumee Bay each summer.

I shouldn’t draw too much significance from meetings. But this one could be an encouraging sign the Toledo area has finally turned a corner and is headed in a new direction on that nagging, 25-year-old issue.

“The challenges of managing dredging material here have been contentious in the past. We need to simply move forward,” said Ed Hammett, Ohio Lake Erie Office executive director and former chief of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s northwest district office in Bowling Green.

Well put, Ed.

For years, the bureaucratic tap dance has gone like this: The Army Corps of Engineers, charged with keeping the nation’s navigable waters open, applies for a permit to put most of what it dredges from the channel into a northern part of the bay. The Ohio EPA, under pressure from business interests, reluctantly grants authorization with many strings attached to discourage that practice. Boatloads of rhetoric get spewed by Great Lakes governors and environmental directors who scorn the practice but are powerless to stop it. The corps calls its lawyers who, in turn, do what has to be done to get most or all of the attached strings dismissed by the Ohio Environmental Review Appeals Commission. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing but, ultimately, little if anything changes.

Nobody, of course, wants shipping, commerce, and the region’s economy to grind to a halt. Although shipping draws a fair share of criticism from environmental groups, it has some environmental benefits: According to the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, it emits 90 percent fewer carbon dioxide emissions than trucks and 70 percent less than rail if you account for the number of trucks and trains it takes to haul an equal amount of cargo.

But make no mistake about it. Dredging is filthy, even when soil laden with pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers is clean enough to meet U.S. EPA standards.

University of Toledo evidence that emerged in the fall of 2009 suggests turbidity from dredging and open-lake disposal may be making a large contribution to western Lake Erie’s algae problem. Algae hurts anything from property values to public health.

The resuspended sediment also is believed to impair some of the most important spawning grounds of the Great Lakes region’s increasingly valuable $7 billion fishery.

Action is long overdue, especially with Toledo hoping to diversify its economy with more tourism and recreation.

Consider the sheer volume. A fourth of all Great Lakes dredging is in Toledo, by far the region’s most heavily dredged port. Last year, 850,000 cubic yards were dredged from the Toledo shipping channel, enough to fill 85,000 trucks or the 411-foot-tall One SeaGate Center 2.2 times.

The issue has been a sore spot with Ohio’s neighbors, especially Michigan. Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Gran­holm fumed about the Army Corps’ open-lake disposal at the Ohio border during at least one of her annual State of the State addresses.

Jeff Reutter, director of Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, has noted the silt moved to the northern part of the bay would have formed one impressive mountain after all these years if it had stayed in place. But it hasn’t. It has swirled around the western basin, spreading unwanted phosphorus and ecological problems.

So now, a new era began at the Toledo Maritime Center on Thursday as 75 stakeholders from a cross-section of interests offered their thoughts on products such as bricks and concrete that could be made from the silt. They also suggested ways it could be mixed in with farm soil, construction fill, or to reclaim mines, provided the right incentives are in place.

One idea from John Hartig, Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge manager, is to use it as cover for “some of the worst toxics from the Industrial Revolution” that were dug up from the Detroit River and deposited on Grassy Island. Other ideas have included using it to build up land around Toledo Lighthouse.

New Orleans is the most heavily dredged port in North America. Dredged material is used in a big way there to stabilize shoreline and prevent erosion.

Cleveland last year used some of its dredged material as fill for a major brownfield redevelopment project in The Flats called the Cuyahoga Valley Industrial Center.

Now Toledo-area officials are going beyond discussions of a local task force and encouraging the public to think outside the box. Right now, it’s just more talk — but it’s the right talk, coupled with the prospect of federal money President Obama has made available under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Cleveland brownfield model.

It’s little consolation after all these years, but at least the signs are pointing in the right direction.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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