Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Part 3: Murky Waters, "Capping" Open-Water Sediment Dumps

Corps’ Latest Attempt to Legitimize Open-Lake Dumping of Dredged Sediments

-- third in a series of three --

Rivers and Harbors Act - The authority of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE or Corps) to dredge navigation channels in the Great Lakes and elsewhere begins with periodic acts of Congress referred to as the Rivers and Harbors Act of a particular year.  

The Corps is compelled by statute to use the least expensive means in disposing of dredged sediment.  Usually, there are two options for disposal: on-land (or “confined”) and open-water (in our region, a lake).  The least expensive is always open-water, but the catch is that dredged material dumped in a lake isn’t supposed to be contaminated with pollutants.

The eight Great Lakes states (along with two Canadian provinces) have major economic interests in keeping whichever lake or lakes they border clean and healthy.  They have a legitimate concern that any dredgings the Corps wishes to dump off their shores really is uncontaminated.

Cleveland and Toledo - The issue of contamination has been central in ongoing disputes between USACE and the state of Ohio.  In Cleveland, a principal concern has been polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).  In Toledo, nutrients from chemical fertilizers and livestock manure in agricultural runoff upstream contaminate dredged river sediments deposited in Lake Erie, fueling toxic algal blooms.

See Open Lake Disposal, a position paper of the Ohio Environmental Council.

Bipartisan Bill to Fund Repairs at Toledo Harbor
                                                       Toledo Harbor                             EPA photo

The Ashtabula Experiment - Earlier this month (November 2, 2015) discussing the Corps’ dredging of Ashtabula (Ohio) Harbor and open-lake disposal, Andrew Kornacki acknowledges on the Defense Video and Imagery Distribution System that “...portions of dredged sediments contain contamination that can have a negative impact on the aquatic environment if not managed properly.”  

In other words, the Corps knows that the dredged material they’re dumping in Lake Erie is contaminated, contrary to the Clean Water Act.  But don’t worry, they’ve come up with a gimmick that might counteract the negative effects.

UPDATE November 21, 2015:  Another article by Andrew Kornacki posted November 20, 2015 states in part,

BUFFALO, N.Y. - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Buffalo District has released documents that have been submitted to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, requesting a Clean Water Act Section 401 water quality certification for open lake placement of dredged sediment from the upper Cuyahoga River federal navigation channel associated with its scheduled 2016 dredging of Cleveland Harbor.

All documents can be found on the Buffalo District’s Web page: http://bit.ly/cleveland-harbor


 Kornacki’s November 2d report says:

Using conventional dredging equipment, the USACE Buffalo District along with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) have started the first of its kind large scale demonstration of treating dredged sediment, from Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, with activated carbon to determine if bioaccumulation can be reduced in the bioactive zone of the 50-foot-deep open-lake placement site.

They say the activated carbon is mixed with the dredged sediment on the scow, using a clam-shell bucket.  (Not exactly a Cuisinart blender.)

The project manager is quoted in the report as saying the contamination in the dredged sediment is minimal.  Apparently, we’re supposed to believe that, on the one hand, there’s almost no contamination, but on the other hand, the contamination is so robust that it will justify scientific conclusions about remediation.

Kornacki again:

In a process right from the text book of a high school chemistry class, when the contamination in the sediment comes in contact with the activated carbon the two bond together. The contaminants are so strongly bonded to the activated carbon they cannot be bioaccumulated by aquatic organisms that come into contact with the sediment.

The most biologically active zone in lake sediment is at the surface of the lake bottom. Knowing this, a part of the study is to examine how treated sediment can be used to cap previously placed or existing sediments on the bottom of the lake by placing a 2-5 cm layer of treated sediment to provide a protective bioactive zone.

Wait a minute!  You buried the most biologically active zone, the lake bottom, under thousands of cubic yards of dredgings!  And now you’re going to place (dumping from a scow 50 feet above) a 2-5 cm (one or two inch) carbon-dosed layer of sediment as protection?  Protection of what?  For how long?  Are there no currents in this huge body of water?  Is anybody buying this?

Before USACE is permitted to apply this preposterous idea routinely, its findings and conclusions from the Ashtabula experiment should be subjected to close, scientific scrutiny and replicated by qualified, independent authorities.  The last thing we want in my neck of the woods is open-water disposal in Lake St. Clair.

*****     **jl**     *****

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Part 2: Murky Waters, USACE, Toledo

-- second in a series of three --

The Maumee River watershed covers 8,316 square miles in northwestern Ohio, northeastern Indiana and southeastern Michigan.  The river enters the western basin of Lake Erie at Toledo, Ohio.  

The watershed is a fertile agricultural region that contains many concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), principally hogs, poultry and dairy. Agricultural runoff contaminates the river. In addition, industrial sites, wastewater treatment plants and combined sewer overflows continue to pollute, although not as much as in the past.

Consequently, the mouth of the Maumee River is loaded with sediment, toxins, pathogens and nutrients.  Among the nutrients, phosphorus is notable for its contribution to the algal blooms that plague western Lake Erie. Climate change is a factor, as well.

Toledo is a major Great Lakes port.  The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE or Corps) is responsible for maintaining a draft of 28 feet in the navigation channel and moorings in the river and harbor.  


Every year, a Corps contractor dredges the polluted sediment and dumps it several miles out in Lake Erie.  For years, the dredgings (as much as one million cubic yards or more per year, enough to fill a 1000’ ship like the MV Tregurtha nearly twice) have been dumped at the same two-square mile site.

 MV Paul R. Tregurtha         Jeff, Greg & Amanda Barber
Environmentalists insist that open water dumping pollutes the lake and contributes nutrients to algal blooms.  In 2011, 2014 and 2015, toxic blooms of cyanobacteria (commonly referred to as blue-green algae) spread across the lake.  The 2014 bloom poisoned the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people in and around Toledo.  The Corps denies that open water disposal has a significant effect on algal blooms.

Earlier this year, a law was enacted in Ohio which prohibits open lake dumping as of 2020.

The Corps is working on a process which it claims will seal or cap contaminated dredgings dumped at open water sites.  Without solid, independent verification of such a theory, there is a substantial risk that the Corps will apply a flawed process at open water sites throughout the Great Lakes.

The confined (on-land) disposal site presently used for contaminated sediment dredged from the mouth of the Clinton River on Lake St. Clair in southeastern Michigan is near its authorized capacity.  Even though the volume of Clinton River dredgings is relatively small, a change from confined disposal to open water dumping in Lake St. Clair on the assumption that the dumped sediments would be capped is too risky for as valuable a recreational resource as Lake St. Clair.