TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Ohio's environmental regulators and a federal agency that maintains Lake Erie's shipping channels will work together on finding new ways to get rid of the tons of silt that is dredged from a northern Ohio harbor and dumped into the lake.
The agreement announced this past week could eventually bring an end to depositing sediment into the lake — a practice the state has fought for decades because of concerns about its impact on water quality.
State lawmakers this spring approved spending $10 million to research alternative uses for the silt, leading to the deal between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Ohio's Environmental Protection Agency.
"Ohio's new commitment to finding alternatives to open-lake placement is part of our ongoing efforts toward a cleaner, healthier Lake Erie," said state Sen. Randy Gardner, a Republican from northwestern Ohio who sought the research money.
Environmental groups, state regulators and political leaders have been trying to stop the dumping since the 1980s. But the Army Corps has resisted, saying it's safe and much cheaper to put it into the lake.
Early this year, the Army Corps was pushing to start taking dredged sediment from the Cuyahoga River and Cleveland harbor and disposing of it offshore. But the Ohio EPA objected and the Army Corps backed off the idea in April, saying it would continue to put the sediment in a contained disposal facility.
State EPA Director Craig Butler is setting a goal of significantly reducing or eliminating the dumping of sediment dredged from Toledo's harbor into the lake within five years.
He wants to come up with test projects that will look at alternatives this year.
Potential options for the silt include using it to make wetlands, putting it on farm fields or mixing it with soil to make compost.
Around the Great Lakes, Minnesota and Wisconsin have laws prohibiting nearly all open-water dumping while some other states have taken steps to reduce it.
The issue is significant in Ohio because the amount dredged in Toledo's harbor dwarfs nearly all other Great Lakes sites and most of the sediment is disposed of in the lake.
The worry about dumping so much sediment is over how it may affect fish such as walleye and perch and whether it could be contributing to the rising algae growth over the last few years. There's no evidence that's happening, but many environmental groups suspect there's a connection.
Kristy Meyer, of the Ohio Environmental Council, said it was disappointing that open-lake dumping will continue this year. "But credit the Ohio EPA for committing to more environmentally-friendly, beneficial use of dredged materials," she said.
The rise in toxins produced by the algae has contributed to oxygen-deprived dead zones where fish can't survive and is a threat to Lake Erie's fishing and tourist businesses.
"It's the first step forward in dealing with this massive problem," said Paul Pacholski, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association. "This is a big step toward a healthier ecology in the lake."