Officials Look at Possible Uses for Materials Dredged from Erie Harbor

Article Image
Brenda Sandberg

Posted January 14, 2019

Materials dredged from Erie’s harbor one day could fertilize farmland or provide habitat for fish and wildlife.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District, is considering new uses for what’s dredged from Presque Isle Bay as it updates its local management plan.

The corps now deposits materials dug from the harbor in the open waters of Lake Erie several miles from Presque Isle Bay.

Other communities recycle the stuff.

In Conneaut, Ohio, about 30 miles west of Erie, city officials plan to remove water from dredgings and prepare the remaining sediment for use as topsoil, according to a capital request to the Ohio Office of Budget and Management.

That work will be done at the Conneaut Creek Dredge Material Facility to be built on the former Canadian National coal dock at Conneaut Harbor. One of the uses for materials dredged at Conneaut could be a soil cap over a nearby brownfield site, according to the capital request.

The facility would handle up to 75,000 cubic yards of dredged materials annually.

The Conneaut project is part of a statewide Healthy Lake Erie initiative to reduce lake contaminants. The Ohio Office of Budget and Management Controlling Board in December released $4 million in project funds to design and build the Conneaut facility. An additional $6 million will fund similar projects at Lorain and Toledo harbors.

Ohio previously allocated money for similar projects at five additional harbors. The state will prohibit dumping dredged materials back into Lake Erie starting in 2020.

The Buckeye State has been ahead of the curve in looking at alternatives to dumping dredged materials back into Lake Erie, said Dave Romano, deputy district engineer for the Corps of Engineers’ Buffalo District.

“Ohio has been doing a fantastic job looking at beneficial ways to use dredged materials from all of its harbors,” Romano said. “The state is funding several projects, and state agencies have been acting in a proactive manner on a complex challenge.”

The Corps of Engineers has been working on the initiatives with Ohio officials and hopes to launch a similar collaboration in Pennsylvania this winter, Romano said.

“We’d love to mirror the same thing in Erie,” Romano said. “We already have great relationships that we can build on to come up with innovative ways and the best science on how to use these materials.”

The Buffalo district, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is responsible for harbors from upstate New York, along lakes Ontario and Erie, through Pennsylvania and Ohio along Lake Erie.

The new dredged materials management plan will include a study of the composition of materials dredged at Erie, Romano said. Just under $300,000 has been allocated for the plan.

“We have to know what type of material it is and its characteristics, and there will be some testing behind that,” Romano said. “A first step is to understand the current conditions, pose those current conditions to our working group and then begin to come up with ideas and various alternatives to look at.”

The Erie working group will include local and state legislators, port officials, business leaders and others, including members of the public who want to be involved, said Andrew Kornacki, spokesman for the Buffalo District, Corps of Engineers.

“We want and require some input from the public and will be reaching out to spread the word that people with ideas or who want to be part of this will be welcome to participate,” Kornacki said.

Materials dredged from Conneaut harbor generally are clean and could be used for topsoil, city officials have said, according to a report in the Ashtabula Star Beacon. The city is responsible for determining how dredged materials will be used.

Materials dredged from Erie’s harbor also are generally clean, said Brenda Sandberg, executive director of the Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority.

“As part of our (Department of Environmental Protection) dredging permitting process, the material is tested every five years,” Sandberg said. “We’ve never had to dispose of anything in a regulated (disposal) facility.”

Looking at potential uses for dredged materials makes sense, Sandberg said.

“The cost for the disposal of dredged materials in combined disposal facilities is very prohibitive,” she said. “It’s a good idea to look at ideas for using it instead.”

The Corps of Engineers has considered using materials dredged from Erie’s harbor to build up Gull Point at Presque Isle State Park.

The corps in 2016 decided against using the materials at Gull Point after it determined that the grain size of sediments from the harbor were different than the sediments at Gull Point and could adversely affect aquatic habitat.

The Presque Isle Advisory Committee additionally had expressed concerns about possible contaminants in sediments dredged from the harbor.

Environmentalist Sherri Mason, sustainability coordinator at Penn State Behrend, shares concerns about possible contaminants in the dredged materials and urges caution in determining what will be done with them.

“Yes, removing the sediment would pull the contaminants out of the water, but then where does that sediment go? To a landfill? Then it just becomes a soil issue, which will eventually percolate to the water table. To an incinerator? Then it becomes a pollution issue. Even worse, some contaminants form worse compounds when burned.”

Before beginning work at Behrend this month, Mason led research on microplastics contamination in the Great Lakes as a professor of chemistry and chair of the department of geology and environmental science at the State University of New York in Fredonia.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last updated its plan to manage materials dredged from Erie’s harbor in 1996.

Lake Erie harbors are dredged as needed to keep them accessible for shipping. Erie’s harbor most recently was dredged in 2016. There are no plans to dredge the harbor this year, according to the corps.