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Published: Monday, 1/27/2014

COMMENTARY

Is Maumee Bay landfill an ecological time bomb?

BY THOMAS WALTON
BLADE COLUMNIST
Walton Walton
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It's late January, and Facility 3, surrounded by the icy stillness of a Lake Erie winter, seems harmless enough. Asleep, even. Tom Kovacik, however, is wide awake.

Mr. Kovacik worries pretty much around the clock about the man-made landfill that juts into Maumee Bay. He’s convinced it is a metaphorical ticking time bomb.

First, let’s establish Mr. Kovacik’s street cred. He’s a scientist with a master’s degree in geochemistry. He established Toledo’s Class A biosolids program. His master’s thesis examined mercury pollution in Lake Erie.

He has written numerous technical papers. He speaks a language for which the rest of us need a translator. He talks about pathogens, sludge compounds, and leaching waste, and he does so with an air of authority.

He once served as Toledo’s chief chemist. Then he was utilities director and later chief operating officer under former mayor Carty Finkbeiner.

When he foresees an environmental disaster at Facility 3 in the next two years, it would behoove us to listen. The man knows his stuff.

However, he’s also affiliated with N-Viro International Corp., the company that once handled the city of Toledo’s solid waste, but lost the contract to another firm, which deposits Toledo’s sewer sludge, or Class B waste, at Facility 3.

To put it as delicately as possible, the pathogens in Class B waste — the fecal coliform, the salmonella — are not good for you. Blue Water Satellite Inc., a satellite imaging firm in Bowling Green, considers the site to be a “point source” for phosphorus leaking into Maumee Bay.

Facility 3 is, in Mr. Kovacik’s view, full to the point of overflowing. This is stuff you do not want spilling into a Great Lake. All it would take for an environmental calamity, he is convinced, is a steady, 3-inch rainfall — rare, but not unprecedented.

So is he a man of science sounding a dire warning of an ecological disaster as inevitable as April showers? Or is he a bitter Chicken Little in a lab coat, resentful of a rival company that effectively closed N-Viro down locally by submitting a better bid for the city’s contract?

He acknowledges he was not happy the city went with S&L, the rival firm, instead of with N-Viro, which treated the waste to make it safer and sold it as agricultural fertilizer.

Mr. Kovacik also admits he is vulnerable to criticism because he sits on the N-Viro board and receives modest compensation for doing so. However, he says that from this point forward, he will no longer accept N-Viro’s money.

“I have other consulting jobs and this is not about money anyway,” he says. “I can’t walk away from this, so I’ll keep talking about it, because it’s the right thing to do.”

The late December flooding in northwest Ohio, plus this month’s heavy snows and rain, aggravated the situation. He insists that all the water dumped on Facility 3 means the resulting mix has to go somewhere, by leaching into the ground or by spilling over the top.

“Facility 3 has no leachate collection system,” Mr. Kovacik said. “It was never built to contain water. It was built to leach it.”

He apparently has an ally in new Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins.

“The more I looked into what Tom has told me, the worse it got,” Mr. Collins says. “This is a very serious issue. I can’t believe the city did not allow the science to determine the safety of what’s going on at Facility 3.”

Facility 3, Mr. Kovacik points out, was never intended to receive Class B waste. It was supposed to be a roughly 500-acre landfill where Maumee River dredgings were deposited as a safer alternative to dumping them directly into Lake Erie.

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency comes to Toledo to investigate Facility 3, Mr. Kovacik says, the agency’s first question to local authorities will be: “What the hell were you people thinking?”

Mayor Collins frets that if the state or federal EPA were to come in with a cease and desist order at Facility 3, “we would have one hell of a problem.”

Last fall’s rains were so heavy and the algae blooms so severe that “the lake looked like it had a layer of green paint out there,” the mayor says.

Toledo, the mayor says bluntly, “got sold a bill of goods on the S&L contract.”

Sandy Bihn, a former Oregon city council member who is active with the Western Lake Erie Waterkeeper Association, thinks little of Mr. Kovacik’s catastrophic predictions or the mayor’s fears.

“I am unaware of any evidence of a problem at Facility 3 except from the loser of the Toledo wastewater contract,” she says in an email.

So who’s right? If it’s Tom Kovacik, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Thomas Walton is the retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday. His commentary, “Life As We Know It,” can be heard each Monday at 5:44 p.m. on WGTE-FM 91.

Contact him at: twalton@theblade.com


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