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Muddy Prospects: A New Industry Surfaces That'll Repurpose River Sediment

Tug moves dredged sediment through Cuyahoga River (from Jim Ridge/Share the River)
Tug moves dredged sediment through Cuyahoga River (from Jim Ridge/Share the River)

By ideastream’s Brian Bull

Twice a year, a six-mile stretch of the Cuyahoga River has enough sediment dredged out of it to fill more than 22,000 dump trucks.  This allows shipping traffic to continue between Lake Erie and Cleveland’s industrial sectors upriver.  

An executive order earlier this year by Governor John Kasich prohibits open lake dumping of dredged material.  Now there are alternative efforts underway to make use of all that muck.

Outside the ArcelorMittal steel plant, a crane repeatedly dips its clamshell shovel into the Cuyahoga River, then dumps a murky, grayish soup onto a nearby barge.

To most people, this is sludge.  But to Jason Ziss….

“….this is good material, this is really nice stuff.”

Ziss is the business development director for Kurtz Brothers, a Cleveland-area construction material company.  The Port of Cleveland hired Kurtz Brothers to store dredged material on what’s called a Containment Disposal Facility (CDF).  Built in April, it looks like 34 acres of ponds and lagoons.  Geese roam the site…pumps filter out the water.

“We just want to keep moving the water, keep drying this material out, and then start processing it and putting it into re-use applications or dispose of it onsite for permanent disposal,” says Ziss.

At the end of the process, superfine silt that’s contaminated with decades of toxic build up from chemicals like PCBs – will be stored indefinitely in the disposal facility.

But the dried out gravelly stuff can be mixed with concrete or used as filler in landscaping and construction. This is a recycling and repurposing model that Will Friedman, president of the Port Authority, says was the shared vision between the Port and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers …until recently.

“We were fairly surprised and somewhat dismayed when in 2013, the Army Corps announced unilaterally that it was going to move to open lake disposal.”

The Corps is responsible for deciding if and when to dredge the river.

Earlier this year, Ohio filed suit against the Corps over its plan to dump dredged material into Lake Erie. The state argued PCB levels are too high for the health of the lake and for popular fish like walleye.

Corps officials won’t comment until the suit is settled, but in past interviews they’ve mentioned re-using dredged sediment for construction purposes.

Friedman keeps a jar of dredged and dried sediment in a jar. He says it’s been used before to cap a Brownfield site in the Cuyahoga Valley Industrial Center, and a section of the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve.

“There’s a misconception that what comes up out of the river is sort of glowing sludge," says Friedman. "That’s not the case, it actually just looks like sand and gravel.”

This batch, says Friedman, holding up a jar filled with sediment, came from a stretch of the Cuyahoga River upstream of the contaminated industrial area with its factories and mills.  It was collected with a large device called the bedload interceptor.

Recently in Independence, officials from the Ohio EPA and the Port Authority, witnessed the immense metal device gather -- and dispense -- river sediment onto a conveyor belt.

It’s expected that the bedload interceptor will cut annual dredging of the Cuyahoga River by 20 percent.  But that still leaves plenty of sediment that needs to be stored or used. Ohio EPA spokeswoman Heidi Griesmer suggests agricultural reuse.

"I’ve heard the phrase, ‘the best farmland in Ohio is at the bottom of Lake Erie,’" laughs Griesmer.  "Because the sediment that is dredged out of the Maumee River is so nutrient rich that it may be able to be used in farm fields in place of manure or other things.”

But so far, demand for repurposed sediment is modest.  It's not a super lucrative business venture either…and may not be for some time.

“The material that we’ll introduce in the market, can only go as high as the market will bear," says Jason Ziss of Kurtz Brothers. "So for example, fill sands can go from three dollars to six dollars a yard, but not much more than that. As we learn how to process and manage sediment more efficiently, we hope to then increase our bottom line, but right now it’s…it’s slim, if any.” 

The state is funding $10 million in pilot projects across Ohio to fire up interest in repurposing uncontaminated sediment. Which means when dredging starts again this fall, some of that material could end up under your local playground or highway.


Credit: Thanks to Jim Ridge of Share the River for assistance in providing video and sound of river dredging.