By Kailey Sherrick
If you believe the sensational headlines, Cleveland has a “toxic blob,” a silent menace that sits just nine miles off the coast of Lake Erie, and is said to be migrating towards one of the city’s water supply pipes. Local news sources tell the story with lots of B-movie camp, but the real question remains: Should Clevelanders worry? To answer that question, it’s important to understand what the so-called “toxic blob” is, and how it came to be in the lake in the first place.
The “toxic blob” really isn’t a blob at all. It’s not toxic sludge floating on the surface like an oil slick. Rather, it’s a mound of sediment measuring approximately 2 square miles, which rests in the bottom of an area called CLA-1, covered by more than 60 feet of water. This description is much less click-worthy, but much more accurate.
The sediment was dredged from the Cuyahoga River prior to the 1972 Clean Water Act and dumped into the lake untreated, so this poisonous sediment has been there for over forty years. Once one of the most polluted bodies of water in the nation, the Cuyahoga River prompted not just the passage of the Clean Water Act, but also the formation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Ohio EPA, and recent tests conducted by both the state agency and the US Army Corps of Engineers found the sediment contains high concentrations of pollutants (both PCBs and PAHs) that are fatal to aquatic organisms like worms, crustaceans, and insects. In humans, these chemicals could potentially cause cancer, if consumed.
Why are we just hearing about forty-year old Lake Erie sediment now? Because a feud between two government agencies: the Ohio EPA and the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).
In 2015, the USACE proposed a plan to dredge 180,000 cubic yards of sediment from the Cuyahoga River channel, also known as the Cleveland Harbor, and place 80 percent of the dredged material in open water, directly on top of the sediment already existing in CLA-1. The USACE tested the proposed sediment and deemed it safe for open water placement.
The USACE’s open water placement of this sediment would serve multiple purposes. First, it would obviously dredge the river and keep it up to federal standards. Second, the safer sediment would effectively provide a “cap” to the existing, toxic sediment, burying it deeper and taking away much of the potential danger. (Please note that while the USACE is not responsible for the existing sediment at CLA-1, they are charged with maintaining it, as far as I can tell.)
But the Ohio EPA continuously opposes and rejects these proposals.
Why is the Ohio EPA doing this? Because they claim in letters to the USACE that the levels of PCB and PAH in the proposed Cleveland Harbor sediment exceeds the amounts shown in Lake Erie background sediment by a factor of as much as 5. They also claim the harmful sediment of CLA-1 is migrating, as shown in their letter to the USACE from March 1st.
The USACE disagrees. They are firm in their stance that the sediment is NOT migrating, as its depth at 60 feet below the water’s surface prevents it from being affected by currents or waves except in cases of extreme storm activity. The Ohio EPA disagrees. They say the old sediment is migrating.
This debate has grown over the past year and a half, and become less about the safety of the sediment, old or new and more of a political brawl between the two federal agencies. The reason Clevelanders are just now hearing about this issue is mostly a matter of shade-throwing. Basically, the Ohio EPA is using the media to pull us into their conflict with the USACE as they figure out what to do with CLA-1. After the Flint water crisis and the failings of Michigan’s state government water entities, the national EPA seems to be chomping at the bit to maintain its reputation, and the Ohio EPA is following course, hence the sensationalism in the Plain Dealer and other local news media.
Politics aside, the question remains: should Clevelanders be worried about the sediment? The short answer: not at the moment.
Cleveland Water has tested the raw water around their supply pipes and in their treatment plants and deemed it safe, with no rise in the levels of PAH or PCB. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that the sediment is migrating towards Cleveland’s water supply, as shown in the USACE’s reply to the EPA’s report on the supposed migration. If it becomes clear that CLA-1 needs to be cleaned completely, the money will come out of the USACE’s pocket, but it would be the EPA’s responsibility to act (although the USACE would help out with technical details).
As long as the sediment is safe and stable, the question is about whether it is better to let things stand or be proactive. We won’t know the answers until the USACE and the EPA come to a mutual conclusion, or fight it out in court. For now, Clevelanders don’t need to be brought into the political battle. We should be made aware of the situation but not to the point where it could incite panic over a situation that may never come to fruition.
For a related piece, see Recycling Cuyahoga River Sediment.
Kailey Sherrick is currently a graduate student at the NEOMFA (Northeast Ohio Masters of Fine Arts), where she is studying to receive her MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Additional pieces by Kailey Sherrick can be found here.