Posted on March 21, 2017
By James F. McCarty, Cleveland Connects
Giant barges loaded with iron ore have returned to the Cuyahoga River shipping channel, but fears are returning that they may encounter problems along the way to their destination at the ArcelorMittal steel mill docks.
Ship captains experienced problems with the river’s depth last year, and concerns are growing that the same navigational issues could arise again this year without the dredging of the entire length of the six-mile shipping channel, said Jade Davis, a spokesman for the Port of Cleveland.
“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 on Thursday. “We hope that the Army Corps will carry out full dredging this year, in an expeditious and environmentally safe manner.”
In December, the Army Corps said it would resume dredging the shipping channel this month. But now they have added a stipulation to that plan.
“The Corps of Engineers survey team will assess the federal channel to determine the need for, and priorities of, dredging,” said Army Corps spokesman Andrew A. Kornacki in an email. “This should happen late-March to early-April.”
Davis said Port officials consider the retraction “another example of the problems we’ve been having” with the Army Corps. He added that the Port expects the Corps to fulfill its obligation to dredge the entire six-mile shipping channel — a job it has performed annually for at least the past 30 years — and that navigation problems are sure to become worse without the dredging.
The Army Corps insists the dredged sediment is clean enough for open-lake disposal, and deny the agency is legally required to dredge the channel.
But in the meantime, the Army Corps has only dredged the channel once in the past year, and then only the area in the vicinity of the ArcelorMittal docks, where the sediment buildup was worst and ore ships were bottoming out.
The Army Corps’ contractor, Ryba Marine Construction of Cheboygan, Mich., delayed the $3.7 million project until November, but abruptly shut down the operation on Dec. 9 after a pump on an excavator-mounted barge broke down.
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.”
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, said he considers the dredging project and dike disposal of the sediment to be a key component of efforts to protect Lake Erie, and he delivered that message this week to Lt. Col. Adam Czekanski, head of the Army Corps’ Buffalo District.
“I told Lt. Col. Czekanski that while I’m pleased they began the dredging last fall they must continue to ensure that the harbor is dredged as necessary for safe and efficient ship passage,” Portman said.
Portman said he also addressed a Senate subcommittee investigation he is leading 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.
“I also made clear that the corps must continue to cooperate” with the investigation, Portman said.