Lake Erie sediment dumping debate isn't going away

JOHN SEEWER Associated Press Published:

TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) -- A decision preventing sediment dredged out of Cleveland's harbor from being dumped into Lake Erie has satisfied those worried about it fouling fish and drinking water.

The shift in plans, though, won't end the debate over what to do with tons of silt scooped out of northern Ohio's bays and rivers so that cargo boats can navigate the waters.

That's because storage sites for the sediment are filling up and building new ones may be too costly. There's also growing pressure to come up with other ways to dispose of the sludge, much of which is dumped in the lake after being dredged.

Environmental groups, state regulators and political leaders have been trying to stop the dumping of sediment in Lake Erie since the 1980s. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which maintains the shipping channels, has resisted, saying it's safe and much cheaper to put it in the lake.

While it's not clear that the practice of dredging and dumping in the lake is contributing to the rising algae growth over the last few years, many environmental groups suspect there's a connection.

Adding to the scrutiny of the issue was the Army Corps' proposal to begin taking dredged sediment from the Cuyahoga River and Cleveland harbor and disposing of it offshore this year.

The agency argued that the sediments were now safe enough to meet federal guidelines for "open-lake placement," but the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency objected over concerns about increasing toxicity in fish such as walleye and perch.

The Army Corps backed off the idea in April, saying it will continue to put the sediment in a contained disposal facility.

At the same time, the federal agency will continue to dump sediment from Toledo's harbor and others in northern Ohio into the lake.

Sandy Bihn, director of the Toledo-based Lake Erie Waterkeeper advocacy group, said she expects the sediment from Cleveland will eventually end up in the lake, too, because the Army Corps is mandated to find the cheapest method for disposal.

"It's all about money," she said.

State lawmakers this spring approved spending $10 million to research alternative uses for the silt. Potential options include creating wetlands, putting it on farm fields or mixing it with soil to make compost.

Kristy Meyer, of the Ohio Environmental Council, said open lake dumping has been banned or reduced in other Great Lakes states because the potential costs to the environment and drinking water are so great.

"We need to figure out another way," said Meyer, who is the council's director of agricultural, health and clean water programs.