Bob Downing

Two government agencies are at odds over whether sediments from the Cuyahoga River and Cleveland Harbor are clean enough to dump in Lake Erie.

The fight pits unlikely rivals: the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps wants to dump some of the Cuyahoga River sediments into Lake Erie for the first time in 40 years. The Ohio EPA is not sold on that plan.

The Ohio EPA is worried that the sediment dumping will increase toxicity in Lake Erie fish such as walleye and perch that are popular with anglers. The Corps says that won’t happen and is defending its plans.

The two sides have had numerous discussions, meetings and exchanges of letters on the issue since August. Both sides have made pleas to the U.S. EPA, although that agency has yet to take a stand.

The Columbus-based Ohio Environmental Council stands behind the Ohio EPA and is opposed to the Corps’ plans.

“It’s a terrible idea,” said attorney Nathan Johnson from the eco-group. “It could increase toxicity in Lake Erie fish. It’s just a bad idea.”

The Corps’ Buffalo District office has determined that moving the dredged sediments to two Lake Erie areas 5 to 9 miles offshore for disposal would create “no significant impact.”

The agency says the quality of Cleveland Harbor sediments has improved significantly since 2007. It “has improved to the point that it now meets U.S. EPA/USACE guidelines for open-lake placement,” the Corps said.

The Ohio EPA remains troubled about the levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), residual DDT and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the sediments and is against putting the sediments in Lake Erie, EPA Director Craig Butler said.

The agency “does not feel that the sediments quality is sufficient to meet the open-water placement criteria,” wrote former EPA Director Scott Nally last October.

The state disagrees with the federal testing methods and says the sediments “objectively and unambiguously fail” to meet federal PCB limits and are a threat to fish.

It is also concerned that the in-lake dumping could affect water supplies including Cleveland’s, the EPA said.

Ohio is worried that the Corps’ plan would “establish a worrisome precedent” and add to Lake Erie toxicity, Butler said in a Jan. 21 letter.

The EPA is evaluating alternative plans with less or no environmental impact. The agency will consider the technical, economic, social and environmental impacts of the project before deciding whether to approve the dredging request, said spokesman Mike Settles.

“We have deep concerns,” he said. “And that hasn’t changed.”

EPA approval is needed before the Corps project can proceed.

If the state were to reject the plan, the Corps could file an appeal with a state appeals board. A rejection could delay or halt the in-lake dumping.

The plan by the Corps would mark the first Lake Erie in-lake disposal of Cleveland Harbor sediments in 40 years.

Dredged sediments from Huron, Conneaut, Toledo, Lorain, Ashtabula and Erie, Pa., have been dumped into Lake Erie in recent years.

Since 1974, the sediments from the Cuyahoga River have gone into man-made containment areas along the Lake Erie shoreline. No in-lake dumping has been permitted because of pollution levels in those sediments.

Under the latest plan, the Corps wants to dredge up 475,000 cubic yards of sediments, starting in May. That’s enough to fill Akron’s Rubber Bowl from floor to top about 2.4 times.

The plan calls for removing about 4 feet of sediments from the 5.6-mile-long shipping channel through the industrial Flats area to accommodate shipping. The channel has steel sides and is dredged to 24 feet in depth.

The Corps wants to dump up to 180,000 cubic yards into Lake Erie between Cleveland and Rocky River. The remaining material would be added to disposal facilities on land along the shoreline.

The in-lake disposal areas would each be two square miles with 55 to 62 feet of water. One of the two areas was used for in-lake disposal more than 40 years ago.

Under federal rules, the Corps must select the “least-cost, environmentally acceptable dredged material management alternative that is engineeringly feasible,” the Corps said.

The Corps said its review showed that open-lake placement of the dredged material “is unlikely to result in any significant chronic toxicity.” The agency concluded that “the dredged material will not have an unacceptable adverse impact on the aquatic ecosystem when placed at either open-lake area.”

The Corps said that alternatives were considered but rejected.

“It was determined that no practicable alternative currently exists for material that is suitable for open-lake placement,” the agency said in its 452-page assessment.

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