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Cuyahoga River sediment remains tainted with PCBs, latest tests find

September 21, 2018

Cuyahoga River sediment remains tainted with PCBs, latest tests find

CLEVELAND, Ohio – After years of disputes, the Ohio EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have reached an accord in their methods for testing sediment from the Cuyahoga River shipping channel.

But they still can’t agree on how to interpret the findings.

Based on recently released test results, obtained from dozens of sampling sites along six miles of river bottom, EPA scientists have determined that PCB levels remain dangerously high, making the sediment unsuitable for open-lake dumping.

“Other contaminants are also present in the sediment, but for our purposes PCBs remain the primary driver of our concerns,” said Kurt Princic, chief of EPA’s Northeast Ohio District.

When the newest test results were compared with three other rounds of testing completed since 2014, the evidence of PCB contamination had not improved over the four-year period, Princic said. The manmade industrial chemicals are hazardous waste, potentially carcinogenic, and have been banned since 1979.

“PCBs continue to make their way into the river,” Princic said. “The water in the river flows through industrial areas while also picking up storm water and combined sewer overflows, so there are a lot of sources that material could be coming from.”

Scientists from the Corps of Engineers concur with those findings, but they disagree with the EPA’s analysis.

In an executive summary of the test results, the Corps contends the levels of PCBs and other contaminants found in the shipping channel sediment are consistent with the sediment on the bottom of Lake Erie where dredged soil was dumped nearly 50 years ago, prior to passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972.

“Long-standing technical differences remain between our agencies regarding interpretation of the results,” the Corps of Engineers and Princic wrote in a joint memorandum.

For the Corps of Engineers to take the much-cheaper route of disposing of an estimated 16,000 truckloads of dredged sediment per year in the open lake, the agency would first need to obtain a permit from the EPA. But to date, the EPA has rejected every request, requiring the Corps of Engineers to dispose of the dredged sediment in containment dikes located on the Lake Erie shoreline, and that policy is not likely to change until the PCBs are no longer detectable in the river sediment.

Last week, Congress passed a $147 billion spending package that included funding for the Corps to dredge Cleveland harbor next year, plus language that blocks the Corps of Engineers from dumping the dredged material into Lake Erie.

“I’m glad this language to protect Lake Erie was included in the conference report and I will continue to use every tool available to make sure both the City of Cleveland’s water supply and Lake Erie’s ecosystem is protected,” Senator Rob Portman said in a prepared statement.

In recent years, the Cleveland water department has been conducting rigorous testing of raw Lake Erie water at the Nottingham Water Treatment Plant nearest to where the contaminated sediment was dumped prior to 1972, Princic said. But there has been no evidence of PCBs or other industrial contaminants.

Despite their disagreements, the EPA and Corps of Engineers actually are getting along better than they have in decades, Princic and the Corps’ scientists say. In February, the state of Ohio and the Corps of Engineers settled a two-year federal lawsuit filed over the dredging dispute that required the Corps to bear the cost of disposing of river sediment into the containment dikes.

At a joint meeting in March to discuss the sediment findings, which were released for the first time publicly last week, the two agencies described the event as “professional and the atmosphere positive.” Scientists from both agencies obtained the samples together, agreeing to the locations and sampling protocol. The samples were tested at a Corps of Engineers lab in Buffalo.

“They took the lead on the testing, but it was a joint effort,” Princic said. “Things have definitely improved between us and the Army Corps. We’re in this together. We can’t do it without them and they can’t do it without us.”

Now that the testing is complete, the EPA and Corps of Engineers are continuing to work together in preparation for 2020, when a new Ohio law takes effect that will ban the open-lake dumping of dredged sediment from the other seven Ohio harbors on Lake Erie’s southern coast.

Princic said the Ohio EPA and the Corps of Engineers are working together to identify solutions for disposal of the 1.5 million tons of sand and soil the Corps dredges each year from harbors from Toledo to Ashtabula.

One example can be found in Cleveland, where the Port Authority has been working with the Kurtz Brothers landscaping company for the past few years to recycle sediment collected from the river, plus additional sediment mined from the lakefront containment dikes, for use in construction projects, landscaping projects and for sale as topsoil.

Other proposals being considered include creating or restoring wetlands, habitat repair, beach replenishment and placement in agricultural fields, especially in Northwest Ohio where fertilizer runoff is a growing problem and the primary source of nutrients feeding the lake’s annual harmful algal blooms.

“To date, collaboratively, we have identified nearly 40 potential projects featuring beneficial use, which we’re very excited about,” Corps of Engineers spokesman Michael Izard-Carroll said.

Since 2017, the Corps of Engineers has been developing the Cleveland Harbor Dredged Material Management Plan, a 20-year plan offering an array of alternatives that will be evaluated based on costs, benefits, technical feasibility, environmental acceptability and stakeholder input, Izard-Carroll said.

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