FREMONT — The Ballville Dam removal project potentially cleared one regulatory hurdle Friday, but disagreements on how harmful its removal could be to Lake Erie remain.
A U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service supplemental Environmental Impact Statement reiterated an initial evaluation, released in 2014, that the dam’s demolition would not cause significant hardships to the Sandusky River or Lake Erie by the release of sediments. The removal of the dam would also be the most cost effective and would reopen fish habitat in the river.
The report is now in a 31-day public comment phase, and could go next to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for consideration of a permit for the project. But officials from the Sierra Club, whose federal lawsuit concerning the release of sediment prompted the supplemental report, said the new impact statement proves removal of the dam without removal of the sediment would have adverse impacts to the river and lake.
The Sierra Club supports removal of the dam, but it wants sediment removed first.
“Essentially, this document proves that we were right in filing our [National Environmental Policy Act] suit,” said Jen Miller, director of the Sierra Club’s Ohio chapter.
The club stayed that suit in October, 2015, pending the supplemental report. Ms. Miller said the club is still reviewing the report and considering its legal options, but that, if nothing else, the new study provides more transparency for residents of northwest Ohio.
The core of the dispute is how sediment, collected upstream of the dam in the 100 years since it was built, would affect the river and lake. New samples taken of the sediment show that there are not significant contaminants in the sediment that would harm the environment.
“This is because the levels of contaminants are either below levels that would be expected to result in adverse effects, or because the levels of contaminants in the sediments in the impoundment are not significantly different than the levels of contaminants in the sediments below the dam,” the report states.
Fish and Wildlife also had experts at several Ohio universities review the plan, and the report states they concluded the release of sediment would not affect the size of cyanobacterial blooms in the lake. Cyanobacteria produce the toxin microcystin, the algal toxin behind the 2014 Toledo water crisis.
But Ms. Miller pointed to comments by Ohio State University researcher Justin Chaffin, who said in the report that removal of the dam would increase the hypoxic area — areas with low oxygen levels within which most fish can’t survive — in the lake by 200 square kilometers.
“Two hundred square kilometers of dead zone is significant,” she said.
The researchers in the report, however, note that the current hypoxic area is about 7,000 square kilometers, and Mr. Chaffin himself notes that the amount of phosphorus that is behind the dam is much smaller than what is annually released by the Sandusky River into Lake Erie.
“Perspective is needed here,” he wrote.
Doug Kane, a biology professor at Defiance College, said the Central Basin of Lake Erie would go hypoxic or anoxic — water lacking oxygen — whether the dam is removed or not.
“In my expert opinion, the ecological benefits ... VASTLY outweigh any negative impacts with respect to [cyanobacterial harmful algal blooms] and hypoxia/ anoxia, which would likely be temporary and localized at worst and possibly not even noticeable,” he wrote.
Jessica Hogrefe of the Fish and Wildlife Service said the report analysis shows that removal of the dam would not increase the potential for algal blooms, and is the right thing for the river.
“We stand by the analysis and the conclusion in the document,” she said.
Another dispute is over cost of sediment removal. The Sierra Club wants the City of Fremont to remove the sediment and then sell it, as it could be used by farmers and gardeners. Ms. Miller said the initial study pegged removal costs at about $100 million, but the supplemental report shows costs to be about $11 million.
Brian Elkington of the Fish and Wildlife Service said the Sierra Club is using the high end of initial estimates. And $11 million is still a lot of money, Ms. Hogrefe said.
“When viewed in light of the expected limited long-term risk of impacts downstream, it was determined that excavation along with beneficial reuse of the impounded sediment was neither necessary nor economically feasible,” the report states.
Initial work related to the dam removal is already under way, as crews began work earlier this fall constructing an ice control structure to reduce ice flows and jams in the Sandusky River in downtown Fremont when the dam is removed.
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