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Environment


With the help of a lot of money, Ohio's Ashtabula River returns to health
It's one of the Great Lakes success stories
Story by KAREN SCHAEFER


 
Final dredging will take place this summer and fish-advisories will be removed.
Courtesy of KAREN SCHAEFER
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In The Region:

Back in the late 1980's, the Ashtabula River on Lake Erie was classified as one of the most polluted rivers in the Great Lakes region. Now 25 years later, it's likely to become the first of Ohio's four most toxic rivers to be reclassified as restored to health. As independent producer Karen Schaefer reports, it's taken plenty of hard work and cooperation between government and industry to clean up this river – and a lot of money.

LISTEN: The turn around of the Ashtabula River

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In historic downtown Ashtabula, Fred Leitert is leading a tour of a once badly polluted river. In one direction, toward the old lighthouse on Lake Erie, the industrial harbor is still fringed by mountains of coal. Look the other way, beyond a turn-of-the-century drawbridge, and the wide Ashtabula River is filled with small pleasure boats.

You’d never guess this was a place where fish once developed tumors from invisible toxins in the river sediments.

"The Great Lakes Legacy Act-funded dredging started at this bridge," Leitert says, "and went all the way up past the bridge that we’re going to.

That other bridge is out of sight two miles away. Leitert, a retired chemical plant manager, has been working with other local residents and federal partners since the 1980’s to help clean up generations of industrial pollution from the Ashtabula.

"This was PAH’s, PCB’s, metals – it was all in there," he recalls. "A good part of it came from the chemical industries, some of it from shipping and other industries.

Those sediments – enough to fill more than 30 Olympic-sized swimming pools – contained more than 25,000 pounds of PCB’s and other contaminants so toxic they had to buried underground.

Lietert points to a grass-covered mound, surrounded by a tall metal fence that stretches to the horizon.

This is the consolidation facility. ... Nineteen acres of it.

The Army Corps pulls out the vacuum
Over a two-year period, starting in 2006, the Army Corps of Engineers vacuumed the toxic sediments out of the river and pumped them for more than a mile to this old industrial site, where they were bagged, drained, and buried.  Between the removal of the sediments, building the disposal site, and work still being done to restore habitat along the river, the price tag for this massive clean-up project is breath-taking.

Frank Lichtkoppler works for Ohio Sea Grant. "They spent in total, for the whole river, over $75 million."

He says it’s so far the largest such clean-up in the Great Lakes. About half the funds came from the federal Great Lakes Legacy Act. Local industries paid in more than $17 million, the Ohio EPA provided $7 million, and local government put up the rest. Some residents objected to the cost, saying industry should be responsible.

But Lichtkoppler says clean up of the Ashtabula was a job so big no one partner could have managed it alone. And to prevent major pollution to Lake Erie, he says this work had to be done.

"We could deal with it in the river, but once that once that material, if it ever got flushed out into the lake, we would never be able to get it back. So we were, in a sense, racing against time -- or the next huge flood that would have pushed that stuff out.

Ohio EPA division chief Kurt Princic, who helped engineer the disposal sites for sediment removal, says a cleaner Ashtabula River is already boosting the local economy.

"The fish population has improved and we’re seeing an increased recreational use of the river as we speak."

Fish advisories fade to the past
Near a crowded marina, Canada geese swim noisily between the boats. Downstream, fish shelves -- shallow underwater banks where fish can breed – have increased spawning areas. Other restoration projects, funded through in part through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, are building wildlife habitat along the river’s edge. Frank Lichtkoppler of Ohio Sea Grant says fly fishermen looking for prime trout and walleye are now coming from as far away as St. Louis to fish the Ashtabula River. This summer, he says advisories against eating the fish here will finally become a thing of the past.

The signs that say don’t eat the fish will soon be removed. And that’s what people have been working for decades to achieve.

There’s still one small dredging project to be finished up, but by the end of the year, most of the work should be complete.  Then it’s just a matter of monitoring for a couple of years, to be sure that the Ashtabula River is cleaner and healthier than it’s been since Native Americans named it the “river of many fish.” F


Karen Schaefer's series on Northeast Ohio water quality - Drink, Fish, Swim – is supported by a grant from the Burning River Foundation.

 

(Click image for larger view.)

Listener Comments:

When reports are being given about the fish that are deformed by all of the chemicals and heavy metals in Lake Erie, how can the river be clean? All those contaminants come FROM the river and drain into the lake. Decades of industrial pollution have run downstream into Lake Erie.

When we have heavy rains all of that excess water runs off into the river and then into the lake. The river empties just west of Lake Shore Park, next to the sewer plant. When Lake Shore Park has more days of warnings than days of safe swimming, how can the river be clean?

No amount of government reports will ever convince me that the Ashtabula River, or Lake Erie east of the mouth of the river and the sewer treatment plant, are safe.


Posted by: Debbie (Ashtabula) on August 15, 2013 9:08AM
Dusgraceful and Immoral. "some of the citizens said Indusrty should pay"!?! Why wasn't one individual Executive or Local, State, Federal ReNabler held personally and severally liable? Because They ALL were drinking out of the same Country Club tab , and the water THEY drank was bottled , filtered in their martinis! Not were all the multiple generations of locals, down hill from Bunker Hill and down wind from Saybrook area, compensated and acknowledged for their great suffering from painful diseases.Senator Stanton and the Federal Judges who put themselves and their careers before their citizens are the orinating culprits of this human and environmental catastrophe , ignored so long by Industry putting money before people. They are long gone and we all hope there is a God. The rest still have time to live off their 401ks and hide behind Churches that placate them. But, as the good book explains, everyone is responsible for their evil actions against their fellow man. The crystal of the suffering toward Heaven will not be left unanswered. Rightfully so....


Posted by: Tom timonere (Ashtabula( by the grace of God)) on August 15, 2013 8:08AM
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