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Army Corps of Engineers Resumes Dredging a Section — But Not All — of the Cuyahoga River

Posted on April 17, 2017

By James F. McCarty, Cleveland Connects

Dredging resumed this week in the Cuyahoga River shipping channel after a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers survey showed sediment buildup in the lower stretch nearest to Lake Erie and Cleveland Harbor.

Dredging in the upper channel nearest to the ArcelorMittal steel mill’s docks is expected to begin later this month, said Luciano Vera, a spokesman for the Army Corps.

The five-mile stretch in between, however, will only be dredged where necessary. That’s because, in a policy reversal from previous years, the Army Corps will “prioritize” its work.

“We will work with the contractor to address shoaling areas throughout the entire channel,” Vera said. “Some sections will not require dredging at this time based on survey results.”

Last year marked the first shipping season in more than 30 years that the Army Corps did not dredge the entire river. After delaying dredging until December, the Corps’ contractor was forced to shut down the $3.7 million project due to inclement weather and after a pump on an excavator-mounted barge broke down. Only the channel in the vicinity of the steel mill docks was cleared.

“Our dredging efforts were cut short last fall due to both equipment and weather challenges that created unsafe conditions for our contractor,” said Lt. Col. Adam Czekanski, the Army Corps’ district commander. “We are happy to begin dredging again to complete this critical work in support of the community in Cleveland.”

Port of Cleveland officials have said they expect the Corps to fulfill its obligation to dredge the entire six-mile shipping channel, and that navigation problems are sure to arise without the dredging.

Port spokesman Jade Davis previously characterized the decision as “another example of the problems we’ve been having” with the Army Corps.

ArcelorMittal is the primary user of the shipping channel, as giant barges loaded with iron ore pellets regularly navigate the crooked river from the mines in Minnesota.

Ship captains experienced problems with the river’s depth last year, however, and steel company officials expressed fears of “catastrophic harm” if a federal judge didn’t immediately order the Army Corps to dredge the shipping channel.

Without a navigable channel, the steel mill could be forced to curtail or shut down its blast furnaces without the raw materials necessary to make steel, the company said.

Earlier this spring, an Army Corps spokesman said a survey team would assess the channel “to determine the need for, and priorities of, dredging.”

The sediment being dredged this week is being loaded onto a barge and pumped into an Army Corps containment dike located near Burke Lakefront Airport.

“The Port is concerned that any delays in dredging this spring, such as was the case in 2016, could lead to a recurrence of river navigation issues again in 2017,” Davis said recently. “We hope that the Army Corps will carry out full dredging this year, in an expeditious and environmentally safe manner.”

The Army Corps is a defendant in a federal lawsuit filed by the Port of Cleveland and the Ohio EPA, who are seeking a court order requiring the Corps to dredge the river and dump the sediment into a containment dike on the Lake Erie shoreline.

The Corps insists the dredged sediment is clean enough for open-lake disposal, and deny the agency is legally required to dredge the channel.

Lawyers for the EPA and the Port obtained emails filed in federal court quoting Army Corps officials of intentionally delaying dredging to allow sediment to build up and threaten shipping in the river, with the intent to “put pressure on the locals,” according to court documents.

Emails from the Corps’ Cleveland Harbor project manager suggested the Corps could reduce the amount of dredging in the shipping channel to impede navigability and “keep the heat on the local users” to approve open-lake dumping.

The Army Corps’ lawyers have denied those allegations.

U.S. Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, recently said he hopes to wrap up an investigation into the Army Corps’ decision last year to cut its own budget as an apparent excuse to dump dredged contaminated sediment directly into Lake Erie.

“We have subpoena power, and I’m encouraged we’re going to receive the information we have asked for from the Corps,” Portman said.


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