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Published: Monday, 4/11/2005

Ottawa River plan could help boaters

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Residents are asked to give their opinions tomorrow night about a possible one-time dig near the Ottawa River's mouth that would enhance boating opportunities.

The bottom line: Is the payback worth the environmental risk?

A coalition of area officials thinks so, even though such a project would likely cost at least $3.9 million and result in 95,800 cubic yards of additional sediment being dumped into the shallow waters of western Lake Erie.

Half of the $3.9 million dredging cost would be covered by state and local sources - mostly the cash-strapped city of Toledo, which expects to cover up to $1.5 million of the total.

Toledo also is expected to accept a $450,000 grant offered by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for the project, said David Moebius, the city's commissioner of streets, bridges, and harbor.

The dredging would occur in the fall of 2006 and take three months, Mr. Moebius said. But he and others said the timetable depends on a number of factors, from the outcome of tomorrow night's meeting to the ability of the region's congressional delegation to secure federal Army Corps of Engineers funding for the project.

Comments on the potential environmental aspects will be accepted at an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency meeting in Point Place, starting at 7 p.m. at the Friendship Park Senior Center, 2930 131st St.

Dina Pierce, Ohio EPA spokesman, said it's important for people to realize the meeting is merely a step in a continuing process, not a forum for the final decision.

The state agency is gathering thoughts from people about whether they believe the environmental impacts outweigh the benefits of the project.

The agency will use comments to evaluate whether the proposed dredging operation complies with Ohio water quality standards.

The Ohio EPA will accept written comments at its headquarters in Columbus through April 19.

A study released in 1999 showed that recreational boating has a $14 million annual impact on the Point Place and that businesses in that part of Toledo could benefit by an additional $5 million a year - a 36 percent increase - if the Ottawa had a deeper channel for western Lake Erie yachts and boats to glide over.

The key word is recreational. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency assigned to keep Great Lakes commercial shipping channels open, is not required to keep silt out of the Ottawa or other waterways used strictly for recreation. It spends millions of dollars every year to remove silt from the Maumee River, though, because the Maumee is the passageway to and from Lake Erie for commercial ships using the Port of Toledo.

The latest plan for the first recreational dredge of the Ottawa - an idea that arose at least as far back as 1938 - would entail the removal of some 391,500 cubic yards of silt, a little more than 40 percent of the 950,000 cubic yards the Corps was authorized to remove from the Maumee last summer.

The Ottawa project would begin at Summit Street and go east to the point where the river empties into western Lake Erie's Maumee Bay.

Dredging is an environmentally risky proposition: By stirring up sediment, it can affect fish and wildlife habitat, according to Michigan and Ohio officials.

Three of every four pounds of the Ottawa's dredged sediment - some 295,700 cubic yards - is to be buried in a confined disposal facility on Grassy Island.

But up to 95,800 cubic yards is to be emptied into the shallow waters of western Lake Erie. The Corps is criticized for using the lake to get rid of silt from the Maumee.

The Ottawa has a reputation for infamy: It is Ohio's most polluted river. But sediment tests show the lion's share of pollution is in an industrial zone between Stickney Avenue and Lagrange Street, well outside of the area to be dredged.

Sediment in that chemical conduit has counts of 1,100 parts per million of cancer-causing PCBs, whereas nearly all the sediment from Summit Street to the river's mouth has PCB counts of less than 1 ppm - similar to what is found in Maumee Bay, officials have said.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has said it isn't convinced such a massive dredging operation can be done safely, especially if the Corps dumps silt into the lake.

Monroe County commissioners and Erie Township officials disagree. Both have passed resolutions in support of the proposed dredging operation. Officials there have said they hope to convince the Michigan DEQ that the dredging can be done safely and that southern Michigan could reap as much benefit from it as Point Place.

Other supporters include members of the Maumee Remedial Action Plan, the Toledo Area Metropolitan Council of Governments, and Point Place businesses, including yachting clubs. Several of them have said that getting more people to use the Ottawa will invariably help generate more momentum to clean it up.

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



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