The Blob Isn’t Toxic, but the Politics Are: The Story Behind Lake Erie’s Mass of Sediment

2016-05-11T09:43:11+00:00May 9th, 2016|

 

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.

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For a related piece, see Recycling Cuyahoga River Sediment

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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.

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15 Comments

  1. E May 9, 2016 at 3:24 pm

    Please be aware that the EPA is not the bad guy here. The Army Corps is trying to get permission to open lake dump dredge and all of the community meetings that have happened do not have any people in support of this. Not the Port, EPA or citizens or scientists.

  2. JB May 9, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    What proof do either parties offer to show it is moving or is not moving?

    What about the fish that move through that area, spawn there, graze there? Are they safe to eat?

  3. Cleveland Water May 9, 2016 at 4:56 pm

    Please see our blog for correct information about our monitoring and testing: http://clevelandwater.com/blog/cleveland-water-safe-despite-migration-dredged-materials. We encourage you to reach out to us should you have additional questions regarding your drinking water or Cleveland Water’s activities.

  4. Jim May 10, 2016 at 10:45 am

    Dear Ms. Sherrick:

    It appears you conducted no interviews for your story, nor performed any independent reporting. You merely mined my stories in The Plain Dealer and cited the public documents provided by each of the agencies.

    Just to be clear, there were no inaccuracies in my stories, all of which made it clear that Cleveland’s drinking water currently remains safe and clean, and that the water department can safely treat the drinking water if it becomes polluted with PCBs and PAHs from the blob. You simply chose to take issue with what you considered the “sensationalism” of our newspaper’s presentation of the issue. Then you put your own spin on the information and declared the Army Corps of Engineers the winner, and the Corps’ scientific data to be superior to that of the Ohio EPA’s.

    In the world of fair and balanced reporting, an “Opinion” headline should have been included with your story.

    Fortunately for the 1.4 million customers of the Cleveland Water System and the millions of others who fish, swim and boat in Lake Erie, the ultimate arbitor of this dispute will most likely be U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent who last year ruled in favor of the Ohio EPA and the Port of Cleveland in their lawsuit against the Army Corps.

    James F. McCarty
    Environmental Reporter
    The Plain Dealer

    • KNS May 10, 2016 at 1:08 pm

      Dear Mr. McCarty,

      While you may have skimmed my article, it doesn’t appear that you read it thoroughly. In no sense did I deem either agency as a clear winner, or vilify the other. The article above shows how both agencies have failed Cleveland in different ways.

      The article itself also states that the drinking water is safe, and links to statements from Cleveland Water. At no time did I “mine” the Plain Dealer. In fact, I didn’t look at any PD articles and instead focused on scrounging through as much documentation as I could find from what is available from the EPA and the USACE. And yes, I find the “toxic blob” headlines to be sensational. The blob is poisonous, that isn’t in debate. The debate is whether or not the sediment is migrating, and what should be done about it, which is something I’m sure you would agree with.

      If and when the Ohio EPA lets me see a report which definitely proves the sediment is migrating, this article will be updated accordingly. I’ve reached out to them and have yet to hear back.

      Have a good day.

      -Kailey

    • Anne Trubek May 10, 2016 at 1:18 pm

      Belt Magazine is not a newspaper; it is, well, a magazine. In this sense ‘all’ of our articles could be considered ‘opinions’ as it is defined by newspapers, who either objectively report news or write opinions.

      Anne Trubek, Publisher, Belt Magazine

    • Growler May 11, 2016 at 7:50 am

      The Plain Dealer has done a horrible job covering this. This article is much better and much clearer than anything you’ve written. Instead of attacking it, I suggest you learn from it. And/or hire Ms. Sherrick, who has outperformed you.

  5. Will Friedman May 12, 2016 at 4:05 pm

    Ms. Sherrick,
    I feel compelled to weigh-in on your article about the dispute between Ohio, the Port of Cleveland and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) over toxins in sediments. Unfortunately, your analysis reaches a rather odd conclusion and trivializes a matter that should indeed “worry” Clevelander’s today and tomorrow. Is there cause today for panic or hysteria over drinking water safety? No, of course not. The Cleveland Water Department has assured customers they are monitoring the situation closely and can treat the water effectively. Is it good news that highly toxic sediments have been found relatively close to a public water intake? No, it is surely not. Is it newsworthy? Yes, it certainly is.

    Data from sediment sampling last summer in and around CLA 1 strongly suggest the sediment is moving, contrary to USACE’s unsubstantiated assertion that it is not and could not. Furthermore, Lake Erie walleye and other fish species are still found to contain relatively high concentrations of PCBs, which is why Ohio EPA warns against consuming more than one fish per week and may have to raise the warning level to one per month if concentrations go much higher. This is a very real environmental and human health concern today and further investigation is needed to understand if the movement of legacy river sediments is connected, as many suspect.

    Contrary to your claim that Ohio EPA is playing political games, they are, in fact, simply doing their job to protect our environment and human health. We at the Port are happy to spend time with anyone “peeling back the onion” on this complex and important topic.

    William D. Friedman
    President & CEO, Port of Cleveland

  6. Nan Kennedy May 13, 2016 at 11:18 am

    Just asking – originally the argument between Corps and EPA (beginning well before Flint hit the news) was about dredging fresh river sediment anywhere in the open lake; are we confident that the river sediment is as clean as the Corps contends? The emphasis seems to have shifted.

  7. Nan Kennedy May 13, 2016 at 11:20 am

    Duh! I meant dumping dredged sediment. Sorry!

    • Will Friedman May 13, 2016 at 2:31 pm

      Ms. Kennedy,
      Since you asked, the issue of dumping river sediment in the open lake is very much still in dispute (Corps proposed it again this year) and the Port and State of Ohio oppose it and have brought a lawsuit in federal court to stop it. We are also asking Congress to prevent it (see related story in PD yesterday). Sampling shows, unfortunately, that river sediments still contain PCBs and other toxins. I want to emphasize, my organization, the Port, has already developed a safe, cost-effective alternative method of handling the material that’s already up and running. There is simply no need or good argument for adding more toxins to the lake. Again, this is a long story (part of that onion) but these two topics (legacy sediment migration in the lake and managing new dredge material) are really pieces of a larger and very important issue. -Will Friedman, Port of Cleveland

  8. Jane May 13, 2016 at 4:52 pm

    To headline your story with “The Blob Isn’t Toxic” is exactly as “sensational” as you accuse the PD’s story of being, and, worse, is patently untrue. The question isn’t whether it’s toxic, it’s whether or not it’s migrating. It is toxic, and it cannot help but migrate. That’s physics and hydrology – science.

    Regarding the disagreement between OEPA and USACE, please note that the federal standard that USACE must apply to dredged materials management begins with “least costly,” and only then does “environmentally acceptable” come into play. Not environmentally beneficial, just acceptable. To them. Those are the parameters they must operate within.

    On the other hand, OhioEPA has a wider range and higher level of responsibility regarding environmental impacts, and as a state agency also must attend to the cost to our public health and our economy. What may be least costly to the Corps is, in this case, definitely not least costly to the locals in dollars and cents. And what is environmentally acceptable is not necessarily environmentally beneficial, in that adding any amount, even the slightest amount, of contaminants to Lake Erie does not help us make it cleaner or healthier. The fact that Erie is the shallowest lake, and that 60 feet is not deep – that’s only as tall as a six-story building – and that wave action and littoral drift are therefore more energetic here than in other Great Lakes, well, let’s just say there’s a lot more to the story.

    A large proportion of our population gets its protein from Lake Erie fish. We have to reduce the burden, not increase it or be happy with the status quo. As for drinking water, it may not be a problem for the water department now. But planning for the possibility that such toxins, whether in CLA-1 now or anywhere else upcurrent from a water intake, could become a problem that would require additional financial investments in filtration has to be a consideration. To reduce this to “a political brawl” benefits no one.

  9. Chuck May 14, 2016 at 2:55 am

    What happened to the Lake Erie monster, South Bay Bessie? It is all a vast conspiracy….

  10. P.Jay June 5, 2016 at 9:31 pm

    All the talk of ‘migration’ of the ‘blob’ seems to be rather arbitrary. I’d like to see some hard data. How much has the mass moved? Over what period of time? Has it been a consistent move in a particular direction (closer to the water intake) or is it randomly shifting? How far has it moved from its original location? So far I’m hearing a lot of opinion, but not much hard fact. I know this is now old news…does anyone care anymore, or are we just on to a more current drama? I’m curious to see if this gets a response.

  11. nathaniel DANIELS July 2, 2016 at 10:57 pm

    Please be aware that the EPA is not the bad guy here. The Army Corps is trying to get permission to open lake dump dredge and all of the community meetings that have happened do not have any people in support of this

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