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Cuyahoga River Remains Undredged, Threatening Shipping Commerce; Port Seeks Court Order vs Army Corps of Engineers

Posted on September 6, 2016

By James F. McCarty, Cleveland Connects

For the first time in at least a decade, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has failed to dredge the six-mile Cuyahoga River shipping channel this summer, putting at risk thousands of jobs and billions of dollars, officials at the Port of Cleveland said.

While the Port and Ohio EPA dispute the issue with the Army Corps in federal court, the shipping channel remains untouched. In a typical year, the Corps would have dredged the channel in May, and would be preparing for a second dredging this month to maintain a depth of 23 feet.

But this year, an atypically dry spring and unusually high lake levels have combined to spare the Army Corps from having to perform its legal responsibilities to the Port of Cleveland.

Whether the Army Corps’ obstinance is allowed to continue could be decided on Tuesday during a hearing with U.S. District Court Judge Donald Nugent. The EPA and Port have asked the judge to order the Army Corps to dredge the entire shipping channel, and to dispose of the sediment in a lakefront dike – not in the open lake, as the Corps would prefer.

In court documents filed in July, the Army Corps said it is their choice whether to dredge or not. And at the time, they said, dredging may not be necessary this year. Their opinion hasn’t changed since then.

The Army Corps “is continuing to monitor the channel conditions and has not made a final decision on dredging the channel this year,” Corps officials said in an emailed response Friday.

The optimal conditions may be about to end, however, said Will Friedman, the Port’s president and CEO.

“The problem with that argument is that, at some point, things are going to shoal in,” Friedman said in an interview Friday.

“In years past, from four to five feet of sediment has dropped quickly into the shipping channel after heavy rains. It could happen again in the next week. It may have already happened,” Friedman said, recalling a huge plume of sediment that poured from the river into Lake Erie after a violent thunderstorm three weeks ago.

Glen Nekvasil, vice president of the Lake Carriers’ Association, said his boat captains are experiencing problems with the depths of the shipping channel.

“Yes, it is having an impact on us, but I can’t go into a lot of details,” Nekvasil said. “All I can say is that, because it has not been dredged we are not carrying full loads and they’re losing significant amounts of cargo.”

Shoaling sediment already has begun piling up along the docks of the channel’s most vital customer, the Arcelor Mittal steel mill, Fridman said.

As a result, ore ships serving the steel mill have been unable to maneuver in the channel to properly situate their booms for unloading the ore, he said. And being unable to maneuver in the river’s turning basin at the Mile five marker – which the Army Corps hasn’t dredged for years — has forced the ships to back out the full six miles of the river, he said.

The steel mill cannot dredge around its docks until the Army Corps dredges the main shipping channel, Friedman said.

An Army Corps officials said the agency has monitored the water depths of the channel three times this year, and will conduct another survey this weekend.

The Army Corps also said they have been in communication with officials at the steel mill, “and conditions in the channel have not changed since the last discussion.”

The Corps official added: “Arcelor Mittal can dredge their dock areas and adjacent channel at their convenience and do not have to wait until the Army Corps dredges.”

The Army Corps official said there is precedence for not dredging the shipping channel twice a year. In 2009, the channel was only dredged once after the Army Corps determined it wasn’t necessary to dredge in the fall.

But the Corps said it would have to research whether the channel had ever gone an entire year without being dredged, and could not provide an answer until next week.


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