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With another fish-spawning season drawing to a close, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is planning to get down to its annual task of digging out Toledo's shipping channel beginning on or about June 1.
The $6 million dredging operation is necessary so that ships can continue to pass through the region and help keep the local economy afloat. Few people question the need for dredging in the Toledo area: Its waters are the shallowest - and consequently, the most heavily dredged - of the Great Lakes navigation system.
Just as certainly as the digging that's about to occur, the dumping of silt in open Lake Erie will draw opposition from environmental groups and state officials in both Ohio and Michigan - despite the fact that few practical alternatives have been developed and the cost of trying to bury everything has soared.
Now, a Columbus environmental consultant believes he may be on the cusp of finding at least a partial solution.
Ernie Neal, president of Neal Environmental Services, LLC, is trying to get approval for a pilot project in 2005 to test the feasibility of reclaiming Ohio's vast number of abandoned mines with silt that has been dredged out and had years to dry.
Mr. Neal said he would dig tons of silt out of confined disposal facilities in Oregon, Cleveland, or Lorain, Ohio, and then ship the material - provided it's suitable - to an abandoned mine in eastern Ohio.
"Toledo is made for this kind of a project," Mr. Neal said. "We're in a position where we can do some serious planning and investigation of this."
For nearly 20 years, the Corps has said it has nowhere to put about two-thirds of the silt it digs up other than an open part of Lake Erie. Space is vanishing from a waterfront landfill near Oregon called a confined disposal facility.
Mr. Neal said he would like to dig four to six feet deep into that facility to get material that has had time to dewater and decompose. As much as 350,000 cubic yards would be removed from the landfill for the pilot study.
Mr. Neal said he has been studying a similar pilot effort in central Pennsylvania called the Bark Camp Demonstration Project, where material that had been dredged from New York and New Jersey waters was used to reclaim a mine in Pennsylvania's Clearfield County after it had been mixed and dried out with products such as coal ash, cement kiln dust, and lime kiln dust. Officials there claimed that pilot project was a success. The result, they said, was a fill with low permeability while resistant to acid, one which allows rainwater to flow off the site.
On March 2, Pennsylvania environmental regulators issued the state's first general permit for the beneficial reuse of such materials at Springdale Pit, a mine being reclaimed by Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co. in Pennsylvania's Schuylkill County.
"We're looking at the same kind of thing for Lake Erie," Mr. Neal said. "The [Toledo] material, at first glance, looks positive for reuse as mine material."
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, eager to phase out open lake disposal because of environmental concerns, would give such a proposal serious consideration, Dina Pierce, an agency spokesman, said.
Records show Ohio EPA Director Chris Jones has sent the Corps numerous letters urging it to phase out open-lake disposal, as have his predcessors. Gov. Bob Taft and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm also have weighed in on the subject in recent speeches, stating their opposition to what the Corps does.
Ohio officials maintain the mere practice of stirring up shallow western Lake Erie with tons of sediment hurts the lake's ecology, even if the Corps strictly adheres to dumping only what it's allowed by U.S. EPA standards.
"We've really been consistent with wanting an alternative to open lake disposal," Ms. Pierce said. She said the agency is now attempting to "force the issue."
The Ohio EPA last month gave the Corps conditional approval for a five-year dredging contract that would allow for even more open lake disposal than in many previous years. But it calls for the Corps to start phasing out the practice in increments each year of the contract.
One of the conditions would allow dredged material to go back into the lake if it's done in such a way as to improve fish habitat. Ohio EPA and Corps officials, though, had no specifics on how that might be done.
"All open lake disposal from Toledo Harbor in the western basin of Lake Erie must cease by at least 2013," the April 28 letter from the Ohio EPA stated.
The Ohio EPA in its latest offer is willing to let the Corps increase its volume of dredgings this summer to 950,000 cubic yards, some 100,000 cubic yards more than the 850,000 cubic yards authorized for 2003.
Plus, the agency is willing to allow a five-year certification at the new level, instead of having the two parties negotiate an agreement annually.
But the Ohio EPA included numerous conditions, most of which center on its quest to phase out open-lake disposal. "We still want to be cooperative. But we want the cooperation in return," Ms. Pierce said.
The Corps plans to appeal the Ohio EPA's offer to the state's Environmental Review Appeals Commission because the Corps objects to the Ohio EPA conditions, Joe Baker, a Corps spokesman, said. It has appealed previous agency decisions about dredging to that panel.
Pat Jones, another Corps spokesman, said the Ohio EPA's goal of phasing out open-lake disposal by 2013 is not realistic without the development of large-scale, practical alternatives.
The Corps has been involved in the investigation of some proposed beneficial reuses, such as trying to clean up the silt so that it can be used as top soil. But many of those efforts have failed because of high start-up costs.
Only 10,000 of the 1.3 million cubic yards dug annually from area shipping channels are investigated for alternative uses now, Mr. Jones said.
"The bottom line is they [researchers in general] haven't made beneficial reuse an economic reality," he said.
The Corps says it has no alternative because space is vanishing from the confined disposal facility.
Under the Corps' plans, the least-polluted, most benign silt from the outer reaches of the shipping channel will be dumped into shallow western Lake Erie, 3 1/2 miles northwest of Toledo Harbor Light. The most polluted, least benign material dug up from the inner harbor along the Maumee River will be buried in the confined disposal facility.
The confined disposal facility was built in response to the landmark Clean Water Act that Congress passed in 1972, legislation often cited as a turning point for environmental restoration of the nation's lakes, rivers, and streams.
For the first 13 years after the act was passed, all silt dug from Toledo-area waters was put into the landfill. After 1985, though, the Corps - aware of how rapidly that landfill was filling up - restricted the confined disposal facility's use to material over a contaminant level deemed as unhealthy for the lake by the U.S. EPA.
The main impediment to returning to the days of burying everything again: Money.
A new confined disposal facility in the Toledo area would cost about $14 million and take eight years to build. State and local officials would have to come up with $5 million, something which they have shown no interest in doing. The federal government picked up the entire tab for the existing facility, but won't for future sites, the Corps said.
If the pilot project is a success here and market conditions are favorable, Mr. Neal could apply for a permit to continually remove about 1 million cubic yards a year from one or more of the confined disposal facilities along Lake Erie. Mr. Neal said it's possible he could be removing fill from the confined disposal facility near Oregon as early as 2006.
That could open up a significant amount of space in that crowded landfill, so that the Corps wouldn't have to keep putting as much silt back into the open water, he said.
Contact Tom Henry at: email@example.com or 419-724-6079.