December 21, 2014

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Solutions sought for silt dredged from harbors

TOLEDO — There’s enough sand, soil and mud scooped out of Toledo’s and Cleveland’s harbors each year to fill Progressive Field to the top of its upper deck.

All the silt dredged to keep open the shipping channel in Toledo is dumped into Lake Erie, while the sediment from Cleveland goes into disposal facilities that are filling up fast.

Ohio’s environmental regulators have wanted to stop the dumping since the 1980s. They’re now working with local and federal agencies to find new uses for the silt so that it no longer ends up in the lake.

Solving the question of what to do with it won’t be easy for a number of reasons. Those looking for solutions say some of their ideas could benefit farm fields, blighted neighborhoods, abandoned industrial land and the health of Lake Erie.

The history

Dredging both harbors is necessary to keep shipments of grain, iron ore and other cargo flowing, supporting 25,000 jobs. But Toledo’s long, shallow port requires more dredging than any of the other Great Lakes.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been piling the silt from Toledo in the waters offshore since the 1980s over objections from environmental groups and state regulators.

The federal agency maintained that it was safe for the lake and the cheapest option, but algae outbreaks fouling the water in recent years led to renewed calls to stop the dumping. There’s no clear evidence that it’s contributing to the algae, but environmental groups suspect there’s some connection.

Then this year there was an uproar when the Army Corps proposed disposing sediment from Cleveland’s harbor offshore, too.
Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency pushed back and the Army Corps dropped the idea. At the same time, state lawmakers approved spending $10 million to research alternative uses for the silt.

The solutions

Several ports along the Great Lakes in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois have been using the silt for road construction projects, golf courses and topsoil.

Now that research money in Ohio is available, both Toledo and Cleveland are looking at what could work there.

State Sen. Randy Gardner, a Republican from northwestern Ohio who sought the research money, said it’s the first time Ohio has committed to finding a solution to open lake dumping.

Some of the research money is going toward a project in Toledo that will test whether the dredged material can be used to grow crops or raise the level of low-lying fields that are difficult to farm. It also will look at turning it into compost for gardens or landscaping.

Cleveland is seeking part of the $10 million to find out if it can capture some of the silt before it plugs the shipping channel and use it to fill the basements of abandoned homes after they’re torn down.

The project, which could begin this fall, has the potential to be self-sustaining and save dredging costs, said Jim White of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Port Authority. The agency also is looking at using the silt to redevelop old industrial sites, something it did a few years ago.

The hurdles

First, there’s the huge amount of silt dredged each year — enough to fill 70,000 dump trucks in Toledo.

That’s why there needs to be a combination of uses, said John Hull, head of Hull & Associates Inc., an environmental engineering firm in Toledo that has researched potential solutions.

The best long-term answer, he said, might be to put the material back on the farmland where it came from because it can handle the large volume dredged every year. Another is creating wetlands along the lake’s shoreline.

Another major obstacle is the cost of moving the sand, soil and mud from the harbors to the farm and industrial land where it could be used. Those studying the issue believe transport costs will mean the silt needs to be used close to the dredging areas.

The cost of turning the material into something usable and finding a market for it also are obvious questions.

Finally, the soil composition of the silt varies in each harbor, meaning what works in Cleveland might not work in Toledo, where the silt has less sand and isn’t as versatile as a commercial product, Hull said.

Despite the obstacles, Ohio’s political leaders believe that turning what’s now a waste product into something that can be sold is worth exploring.