Lake Erie: A Dumping Ground

Lake Erie: A Dumping Ground

Exotic species, legacy toxins, and the dead zone are not the only imminent threats to Lake Erie.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) dredges sediment from channels and harbors to fulfill its responsibility to maintain the navigability of the Great Lakes.The sediment is often laced with PCBs and other toxic chemicals. So where does this contaminated dredge material end up? A majority of the lesser contaminated sediments end up in the open waters of Lake Erie – a practice that is opposed by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA). While the Great Lakes Legacy Act helps to pay for dredging and removal of contaminated sediment from the Great Lakes, the Corps is dumping that same contamination right back into Lake Erie.

The Toledo Harbor shipping channel is the most heavily dredged of the Great Lakes shipping channels. Nearly one million cubic yards of sediment are removed annually from the Maumee River and Maumee Bay – three times more dredging than that of the next-biggest dredging project, in Cleveland.

In the Toledo area, the least-polluted silt that is dug up from the shipping channel is dumped directly into western Lake Erie. The most polluted sediment is buried in a waterfront landfill called a confined disposal facility (CDF). Few people argue with the need for this dredging. The Port of Toledo is a major Great Lakes hub for coal, iron ore, and other bulk cargo shipments, pumping $500 million a year into the local economy and supporting more than 5,000 jobs.

It is, however, also important to note the importance of a healthy Lake Erie to the economy of Ohio. The Lake Erie shoreline region contributes $2.5 billion a year in travel revenue to the Ohio economy – a third of all travel revenue in the state. Tourism, recreational boating, and fishing along Ohio’s North Coast anchor local shoreline economies in Ohio, providing $1.5 billion in sales and 50,000 jobs each year. Lake Erie’s public beaches attract more than a million visitors each year and generate more than $21 million for the economy of local communities.These beneficial uses may be harmed by degraded water quality and ecosystems caused by open lake disposal of dredged materials.

Sediment that is dredged from the bed of the Maumee River is chemically tainted with mercury and other heavy metals along with everything from motor oil to farm fertilizer. The Ohio Environmental Council (OEC) and others are calling for the open lake dumping of dredge materials to stop. Open lake dumping has a variety of negative impacts on the water quality and ecosystems of Lake Erie. Biologists and fish and wildlife experts fear that open lake disposal –– even of less contaminated sediment –– wreaks environmental havoc to the valuable fishery in the western basin.

OEPA director Chris Jones has joined his three predecessors in opposing the Corps’ practice of open lake dumping.

  • The sediment is moderately contaminated and there are very large quantities to be handled,
  • Open lake disposal in the western basin results in movement and redistribution of sediment contaminants in the ecosystem,
  • Water quality standards were violated during open lake disposal in the 1980’s, and
  • The goal of the Ohio and US EPA phosphorus reduction strategy is to remove phosphorous from the system, not further disseminate it in the ecosystem.

Unfortunately, finding alternatives to open lake disposal could be costly. In addition to problems caused by open lake disposal,CDF’s have filled in nearly 750 acres of Maumee Bay. Maumee Bay is very shallow and dredge materials currently fill about 5% of the sixteen square mile bay.

The OEC also would like to see more sediment reduction programs funded to help farmers prevent sediment from getting washed into the river when it rains. These programs are good for farmers and good for Lake Erie. Additionally, the OEC would like to see more opportunities for sediment recycling to be explored. These opportunities provide for beneficial reuse of dredged sediments.

Ohio Governor Bob Taft has said of the Great Lakes, “we hold a great treasure in trust for our children and grandchildren. To the extent that it has been damaged, we must restore it. Where it retains its original value, we must preserve it. We can enjoy this precious resource today, even while acting in concert to safeguard the ecosystem for future generations.”Will Governor Taft be a leader on this issue and take the necessary steps to protect Lake Erie from the degradation posed by open lake disposal of dredged materials? The OEC and others in Ohio hope so and have respectfully requested that Governor Taft ban the open lake disposal of dredged materials in Lake Erie.

 

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.