Bob Downing


The Gorge Dam is an imposing structure.



It towers 68 feet above the Cuyahoga River in the Gorge Metro Park between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls.



The concrete wall stretches 429 feet from the tree-lined bank to tree-lined bank with water running down its face.



Once known as the Ohio Edison Co. Dam, the structure was built in 1911-12 to generate electricity for Akron trolley cars, then later provided the cooling water for the coal-fired Gorge Power Plant.



The hydro-power operation was shut down in 1958, and the power plant 22 years ago.



Now, the dam serves as the biggest impediment to the free flow of the Cuyahoga River. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency wants it removed to improve the river’s water quality.



And somewhere below the tons of water and sediments that have accumulated over the last century is a buried waterfall for which Cuyahoga Falls was named.



If the project moves forward, it will be the biggest dam removal in the state of Ohio, said EPA spokesman Mike Settles.



Researchers now believe they know what is behind the dam. What’s next is determining how to take down the concrete, remove the sediment, calculate the cost and determine whether there is money to do it.



What’s there



The lake behind the dam stretches for about 1.4 miles through wooded but isolated parkland in an area bounded on one side by state Route 8 and on the other by Front Street.



The sediment volume was determined by two studies conducted by the U.S. EPA in September 2009 and July 2011 in the 34-acre reservoir behind the dam. The testing was scratched in 2010 because the EPA was needed at a major oil spill in western Michigan.



The EPA conducted core samples from 43 locations and tested the depth of the sediments with poles at 154 additional sites.



Researchers determined the average sediment depth behind the dam to be 15 feet and the maximum depth was 28.5 feet, according to a 76-page analysis by the Columbus-based Battelle research organization.



And when it was all added up, the volume of sediment in the pool was twice what was expected, said the EPA’s Settles.



Estimates are that there at least 832,000 cubic yards of sediment behind the dam. There’s enough to fill the Akron Rubber Bowl from floor to ceiling four times.



Process of removal



Federal EPA tests revealed moderate levels of contamination but no major toxic problems, officials said.



The key contaminants are lead, cadmium, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons and pesticides. Polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons are from incomplete combustion of oil and coal. The sediments are toxic enough to damage downstream plants and animals, Settles said.



Removing the dam could cost $5 million to $10 million, according to earlier estimates. The larger cost could be the removal of the sediment: $15 million to $20 million, according to estimates. Federal funds could cover 65 percent of the sediment costs. The local share could be covered with in-kind services and contributions from state, county and local agencies plus FirstEnergy Corp.



As a next step, Settles’ agency is seeking $500,000 in Great Lakes funds from the U.S. EPA to hire an engineering firm to determine how best to proceed.



The request is pending before the U.S. EPA. It is unclear what impact the federal sequester might have on the request.



The engineering work would likely be done in 2015 or 2016, depending on available funding, Settles said.



The thought is that as the sediment is pulled from the river bed it would be “dewatered,” with the liquids perhaps processed through the Akron sewage-treatment facility. The solid material, because no special disposal is required, could be spread on farmland or in parks. However, it would not be suitable for construction of houses, according to Settles.



Where the sediments would go would largely determine the final cost of removing the dam because long-distance shipping would increase the costs, Settles said.



The Ohio EPA has met with potential partners to discuss the project, among them Metro Parks, Serving Summit County, the city of Akron and Akron-based FirstEnergy Corp.



FirstEnergy has said it would like to see the dam used for environmentally friendly power but is willing to go along with removal if the Ohio EPA decides the dam must go, said spokeswoman Jennifer Young.



Since 1973, federal, state and local agencies, plus private parties, have removed a total of 50 Ohio dams, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Most were small in size.



Already, dams in Kent and Munroe Falls have been altered or removed to boost water quality on the Cuyahoga River. The city of Cuyahoga Falls is planning to remove two additional Cuyahoga River dams this year. Planning is under way to remove a dam on the river near state Route 82 in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.



That progress was greeted with enthusiasm by Gary Whidden of Cuyahoga Falls, who has been pushing for increased park development and public access along the Cuyahoga River behind the Gorge Dam.



Getting the dam removed would be a major step, he said.



The lack of progress in recent years due to delays in federal EPA sediment testing was “very discouraging …and very sad,” he said. “It’s time to get moving again.”



Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.