From River Bottom to Topsoil: Recycling Cuyahoga River Sediment in Slavic Village

2018-10-26T16:03:09+00:00September 29th, 2015|

By Matt Stansberry
All photos and video courtesy of Share The River

Each year, tributaries flowing into Lake Erie carry millions of cubic yards of sediment to the river mouths.

On the Maumee, Cuyahoga, and Grand rivers and others, sand and clay particles travel downstream, suspended in the river currents, and then sink to the bottom as the rivers widen and slow down.

This sediment clogs up Ohio’s shipping ports.

For example, the Cuyahoga River deposits eight to ten feet of sediment into its deep navigation channel annually. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removes approximately 225,000 cubic yards of this sediment each year to maintain the channel’s minimum 23-foot depth.

So what exactly do you do with a quarter million cubic yards of Cuyahoga River sediment?

In polluted industrial rivers, the Corps will scoop it out and put it in a containment facility – basically a walled-in plot of land where the liquid can run out of the slurry and the sediment can’t harm water quality. This can be expensive, which is why the Corps would prefer to load the dredged material onto a barge and dump it right in the lake.

Arcelor dredging_CU_P1040292Unfortunately, digging up the riverbed in the heart of Cleveland’s most industrialized landscape also can kick up toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that have lain dormant on the river bottom for decades.

“PCBs are man-made chemicals that were widely used in electrical transformers and equipment, motor oil, paint, insulation, and caulking before they were banned in the U.S. in 1979. But PCBs are slow to break down, and their presence remains a scourge to the environment 35 years later,” wrote The Plain Dealer’s James McCarty last spring.

[blocktext align=”right”]Increasing PCB contamination levels in the walleye translates to stricter consumption guidelines, which means less fishing, which means less money spent on tourism and recreation.[/blocktext]The PD ran the article with a huge illustration of a walleye splashed across the front page, a species that represents Lake Erie’s $1 billion annual sport fishery. The walleye is an apex predator, meaning it forages on lots of smaller animals, and through bioaccumulation it becomes increasingly toxic with each contaminated little critter it consumes. Increasing PCB contamination levels in the walleye translates to stricter consumption guidelines, which means less fishing, which means less money spent on tourism and recreation.

The article ran during a tense standoff with the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps wanted to save money, and reasoned that pollution levels in the Cuyahoga had improved enough to warrant dumping the dredge directly into Lake Erie.

Basically everybody else in the state disagreed, from Governor John Kasich, who signed an executive order that prohibited open-lake disposal of dredged material that could result in higher levels of PCBs in the ecosystem, to U.S. Representative Marcy Kaptur, who put language into an appropriations bill that would block federal money from being used for open-lake disposal of dredged material in Lake Erie.

So like a petulant nine-year-old bully, the Corps threatened to only dredge five miles of channel instead of the full six. The last mile serves ArcelorMittal‘s steel mill. If we weren’t going to let them dump the dredged material in the lake, the Corps would hold Cleveland’s economy hostage.

Arcelor dredging_CU_P1040336On a national level, the Corps has a reputation for environmental destruction, incompetent planning, catastrophic failures, and foot-dragging that spans decades. They’re pretty much the worst.

U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent stepped in and ordered the Corps to dredge the whole thing. “Refusing to dredge possibly the most commercially significant section of the Cleveland Harbor,” he wrote, “after receiving specific congressional approval and funding to do so violates the Corps’ duty to expedite operation and maintenance of the Channel to authorized project depths, and would fail to support (and in fact actually destroy) commercial navigation through this channel.”

[blocktext align=”left”]On a national level, the Corps has a reputation for environmental destruction, incompetent planning, catastrophic failures, and foot-dragging that spans decades. They’re pretty much the worst.[/blocktext]While the crisis has been averted for 2015, another quarter-million cubic yards of this stuff will wind up at the bottom of the Cuyahoga again next year. It’s just going to keep coming.

Rather than fighting it, a number of organizations have started working on ways to repurpose the sediment, including a new pilot project to repurpose the cleanest material for yard expansion and storm water management in vacant lots in Cleveland’s Slavic Village.

This reuse of the sediment has the potential to actually improve the water quality in the Cuyahoga and Lake Erie. But how is sediment that is too toxic for walleye supposed to be OK for the residents Slavic Village?

One third of the families in Slavic Village live below the federal poverty line. There are decades of research showing that low-income and minority communities bear an unequal environmental burden of pollution.

How do you convince the Corps that the Cuyahoga River sediment is too dangerous to put it in Lake Erie, but also convince residents that it is clean enough for people’s yards?

The answer lies in how the sediment is handled after it’s been dredged.

Confined disposal facilities and beneficial reuse

Just three miles east of First Energy Stadium, Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve juts out into Lake Erie. The 88-acre peninsula was one of the first confined disposal facilities (CDFs) for Cuyahoga River dredge.

The Port of Cleveland pumped a quarter-million cubic yards of dredged sediment per year into the site from 1979 to 1999, under the direction of the Corps of Engineers. The water drained out of the liquid slurry, leaving solid fill dirt behind the dike walls.

When the Corps stopped using the site as a disposal facility in 1999, the peninsula sprouted with plants, trees, and shrubs that attracted diverse species of birds and other wildlife.

In 2006 the Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District tested the land for toxins to ensure its safety for passive recreation, and the Port opened the property to the public in February of 2012. Where there once was a disposal site, a place to dump toxic material, now there is a lifeline for birds on their migratory journeys, as well as other wildlife.

Tug_Cuyahoga River dredging_1020768Today the Corps is pumping sediment into a new containment facility, on the lake near Burke Lakefront Airport. But unlike the previous CDF, a lot of this sediment will likely be repurposed and reused, rather than treated as waste.

In 2011 the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency determined that dredged sediment could be used on industrial and commercial sites.

Since 2011, organizations have used Cuyahoga River dredge material in several projects, including 300,000 cubic yards of sediment to remediate the Cuyahoga Valley Industrial Center, a brownfield site near Pershing Ave. and I-77.

Part of the trick to reusing the dredge from the Cuyahoga is to carefully direct the dewatering process, to separate contaminants from the clean material.

Kurtz Brothers, an Independence-based landscaping company, is currently managing the CDF at Burke Lakefront, and has implemented a strategy to trap and sell the dredge.

“The CDF is basically a giant open field,” explains Jason Ziss, head of business development for Kurtz Brothers. “The liquid material gets pumped into a series of channels, or sluiceways, so that coarser grain material settles out and the finer material travels to silt ponds.”

[blocktext align=”right”]How do you convince the Corps that the Cuyahoga River sediment is too dangerous to put it in Lake Erie, but also convince residents that it is clean enough for people’s yards?[/blocktext]The valuable sand and gravel sinks faster due to gravity and settles at the bottom quickly. Most of the PCBs and other contaminants wash out to the next pond.

Ziss compared the recovery of clean sand in the dredge material to household recycling.

“Mixed or comingled waste is just garbage,” Ziss says. “It’s when you separate out the components that they become useful. The problem with open-lake disposal is that it’s all mixed together.”

According to Ziss, the contaminants that get washed out in the very fine grain silt are securely disposed of on-site at the CDF. The coarse sand gets sorted by size, and tested by the Ohio EPA for contaminants. If it’s clean, it gets used for throughout the region in construction projects, like pipe bedding or road work.

Ziss said the company has not found PCBs in the dredge material. The main contaminants are called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can range from nontoxic compounds released in cooked meat or burning wood, to the incredibly bad, carcinogenic chemicals.

P1020512For the most part, the sand is pretty clean. But that sediment would be even cleaner if you could intercept it before it settled on the bottom of the industrialized section of river.

Kurtz Brothers recently implemented a new technology called a sediment collector to trap the sand before it hits the shipping channel. Built by Streamside Systems in Findlay, Ohio, the systems look like speed bumps that are placed in the river beds. The water flows over the top of them, causing turbulence that slows the current enough for the coarser sediment to fall into grates in the top of the unit. That sediment is pumped up into a system on the riverbank that takes the wet sand out of the river, and puts it on a conveyor belt for drying, sorting, and sifting.

[blocktext align=”left”]I picked up a handful and let it spill it out – it had the consistency of sandbox play sand.[/blocktext]Ziss took me out back to the dusty lot behind Kurtz Brothers’ office along the Cuyahoga River, and we looked at the pile of sand about 15 feet tall that the unit had removed from the river so far this summer. I picked up a handful and let it spill it out – it had the consistency of sandbox play sand.

Kurtz Brothers only has one of the speed bumps installed, but hopes to bring on more. Ziss said the system can collect up to 20% of the sediment before it gets to the shipping channel five miles downstream.

Reusing the Cuyahoga River dredge for highway projects or to cap industrial sites feels like a no-brainer. Applying the sediment to residential use could be a tougher sell.

But a recently completed study led by the Cleveland Botanical Garden might pave the way for a new process to help address with Cleveland’s vacant housing blight and poor storm water management at the same time.

Residential use: Slavic Village Neighborhood

Economies embedded in bygone industry sectors have experienced a slow transition in to success within the fast paced global economy. These “legacy cities,” are largely concentrated in the Midwest “Rust Belt.” Economic exodus over the past 50 years has left vast inventories of vacant and blighted industrial, commercial and residential properties scattered across these urban landscapes.
Western Reserve Land Conservancy “Estimating the Effect of Demolishing Distressed Structures in Cleveland, OH, 2009-2013

There are about 20,000 vacant houses in Cuyahoga County. These abandoned properties drive down property values for the remaining residents, and are magnets for criminal activity and vandalism. Organizations like the Cuyahoga Land Bank and Western Reserve Land Conservancy’s Thriving Communities Institute are working to tear down abandoned houses and provide green space and bigger side-yards to residents.

Filling in demolished basements and resurfacing old lots takes a lot of soil. According to Sandra Albro, a project manager and soil scientist at the Cleveland Botanical Garden, the fill dirt that that contractors use often contains a large proportion of clay, which is nonporous, causing storm water to run off the urban landscape and into the Cuyahoga River. Storm water picks up debris, chemicals, dirt, and other pollutants and runs directly into Cleveland’s sensitive, recovering watershed.

And while these demolition projects are helping to improve Cleveland’s blighted communities, by using fill material with heavy clay base, we are missing an opportunity to improve the environment and to use a local abundant resource – so an interdisciplinary team including the Cleveland Botanical Garden, Kurtz Brothers, Cleveland Port Authority, the Federal and Ohio EPA, and Ohio State University teamed up to develop a soil blend from Cuyahoga River sediment.

[blocktext align=”right”]…soil testing showed the treated areas were cleaner than the surface material that had been there previously, and that the mix containing the Cuyahoga River dredge was comparable to commercial topsoil.[/blocktext]The US EPA had tested the sediment in the CDF in 2012, and found that the contaminant levels were below Ohio standards for residential soils. Still, the Ohio EPA requested that the working group use a maximum of 25% sediment in the soil blend as a conservative standard to further reduce human health risk. Kurtz Brothers and Nicholas Basta’s lab at OSU tested it further for contaminants before it was applied to two connected vacant properties in Slavic Village.

The structures had been demolished in 2011-12 and are currently held by the City of Cleveland Land Bank. In October 2014, the team applied 40 cubic yards of dredged Cuyahoga sediment mixed with compost and topsoil in a six-inch layer on portions of the vacant properties and planted a low-maintenance lawn mix.

Six months later, soil testing showed the treated areas were cleaner than the surface material that had been there previously, and that the mix containing the Cuyahoga River dredge was comparable to commercial topsoil. This dredge-mixed soil is far more comprehensively tested than anything the contractors are using to fill in basements, or the dirt currently sitting on the ground in these communities.

“One of the worst contaminants, benzo(a)pyrene, is a known carcinogen,” explains Albro. “The EPA limits this contaminant to 1.2 parts per million for residential safety. But it’s not uncommon for us to find high levels of this and other contaminants in urban soils around the Rust Belt.

“We need to evolve public opinion on this resource coming out of the river,” Albro says. We need to start the conversation about the soil. There are little kids playing in postindustrial urban areas, and we don’t know enough about what’s in that material.”

Sam Laud_P1040205 copyThe Botanical Garden may seem like an odd partner for this project, but Albro says that the extremely sensitive politics around the dredge issue required a neutral third party, someone outside of the conflict between the city and the Corps.

“Our mission is to improve people’s lives through plants, and we interpret it as extending beyond the site of the Garden,” Albro says.

The group is now waiting on the Ohio EPA to approve further testing.

I drove to the remediation site at the end of August and ran my fingers through the scraggly grass on the corner of Ivy Avenue and East 73rd St. It looked like any lawn this time of year, green and brown, a little burnt out but mostly covered in uniform plant life. It looked like a yard, and that is an achievement.

[blocktext align=”right”]”People are saying if this heals the soil, if it makes things better for the next generation, let’s get more of it.”[/blocktext]Marlane Weslian, Slavic Village Development’s Neighborhood Development Officer, explains that her group has been trying to do yard expansions for the last four years without much success.

“We found that the soil was so poor, people were on their own to make it a nice grassy lot,” Weslian says. “The demolitions are done with clean fill, but it’s mostly clay content, and it is very hard for grass to grow. People really wanted to do yard expansion, but we were having difficulty because topsoil or compost is very expensive.”

When the Botanical Garden approached Slavic Village about using the dredge, Weslian says the community was all in.

“When we explain the process to people, nobody seems to have an issue,” she says. “We’re really pleased to get back the dredge material. We’re pleased to be able to show that this makes the soil better, to prevent runoff. We want to give people a piece of land that they can actually grow something on. People are saying if this heals the soil, if it makes things better for the next generation, let’s get more of it.”

Matt Stansberry was born in Akron, Ohio. He is a dad, nature writer, and fly fisherman. Find him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFish. More of David Wilson’s illustration work can be found at

Matt’s monthly column with illustrator David Wilson, Matt and David’s monthly column, “North Coast Biodiversity,” is collected here. Order copies of the first edition of Redhorse — a print collection of the first six “North Coast Biodiversity” columns — here, and signed prints of David Wilson’s original art for the column here

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  1. Lisa October 3, 2015 at 11:44 am

    Thank you for this interesting and well-written story. This answers some of my questions about how to use what’s dredge from the river – and does so in ways I did not expect at all.

  2. D. Holmes May 11, 2016 at 2:04 am

    The 1.2 ppm level cited for benzo(a)pyrene as safe for residential areas is about 80 times higher than what is permitted in Wisconsin. Different states come up with different risk levels, based in part on science and in part on politics.

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