The state of Ohio sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Tuesday over the agency's plan to dredge the Cleveland Harbor and dump the waste in the open waters of Lake Erie. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Craig Butler and Ohio Department of Natural Resources Director James Zehringer filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. The state officials allege the Corps' dredging proposal violates the federal Clean Water Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the agency's statutory requirement to maintain the navigability of Great Lakes harbors.
In addition, the lawsuit claims the Corps failed to prepare an environmental impact statement pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act and is unlawfully delegating its authority to maintain navigable waters to a non-federal partner. In the lawsuit, the state asks the court to order the Corps to dredge the full Cleveland Harbor federal channel without disposing of any waste into the open waters of Lake Erie and to prohibit the agency from requiring a non-federal sponsor to pay for disposal into a confined disposal facility. The legal action comes less than a week after Gov. John Kasich signed legislation (SB 1) that seeks to ban the future dumping of dredged material in Ohio's portion of Lake Erie as part of a broader bill aiming to quell toxic algal blooms.
Since the early 1970s, the Army Corps has dredged the Cuyahoga River navigational channel and dumped the material in one of the on-land disposal areas designated for toxic dredge materials, Mr. DeWine's office said. Starting last year, however, the agency proposed dumping the material into the open waters of Lake Erie. The Corps is refusing to dredge the last mile of a six-mile stretch of the Cleveland Harbor channel unless a non-federal partner agrees to pay the more than $1 million cost of confined disposal, the state said, asserting that Congress has already appropriated funds to fully cover those costs. "The Corps' decision attempts to force the state to use its resources to pay for costs the federal government should cover, to accept the severe economic distress to Cleveland and all of Ohio if the Corps refuses to dredge this area, or allow the Corps to endanger Lake Erie further by dumping these toxins," Attorney General DeWine said. "We filed this lawsuit because this decision by the Corps is wrong for the health of Lake Erie, wrong for the economy of Cleveland, and wrong for the taxpayers of Ohio."
The state says dredge material from the final sixth mile of the shipping channel is heavily contaminated with carcinogenic toxins called PCBs. The chemical remains in fatty tissues and accumulates in fish and people as it moves up the food chain. Increased toxic PCB levels in Lake Erie fish have already led to consumption advisories and any additional accumulation could lead to a significant crisis for Lake Erie anglers, according to the state. "Based on the data our scientists have reviewed, we expect the Army Corps to dredge the entire navigation channel to keep the first six miles of the Cuyahoga River open for shipping traffic as required by Congress," OEPA Director Butler said. "Further, as long as sediments pose a risk to Lake Erie, we will fight to protect the lake and Ohioans that rely on the lake by demanding that all sediment be disposed of in the Cleveland confined disposal facilities at full federal expense as supported by the Army Corps Federal Standard," he said. OEPA issued a water quality certification on Mar. 31 allowing the Corps to dredge up to 225,000 cubic yards of material from six miles of the Cuyahoga River and deposit it in the designated confined disposal facilities. The permit complies with Gov. Kasich's executive order prohibiting the open lake disposal of dredge material in Lake Erie if it could result in higher toxins in fish or violate any international treaties or compacts.
Director Zehringer said a healthy Lake Erie is vital to Ohio's travel and tourism industry because it supports a world-class fishery and provides economic opportunities for many small businesses. "We're obligated to take the necessary steps to protect our state's greatest natural resource and enhance recreational opportunities. Keeping the sediment out of our lake helps maintain this economically critical waterway and the health of Lake Erie's fish population for our charter boat captains and all of Ohio's anglers," he said.
The Corps did not respond to a request for comment prior to deadline.