After more than three decades and $75 million, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced in September 2014 that all the cleanup work required to remove the Ashtabula River on Lake Erie from its list of Great Lakes Areas of Concern had been completed, making the river one of the cleanest, deepest harbors in Lake Erie.
The project moved 635,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, including 25,000 tons of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other pollutants, to an area landﬁll.
“A lot of people worked very long and very hard to see the dredging completed,” said Frank Lichtkoppler, a retired Ohio Sea Grant Extension agent and program leader who himself was a major player in the river cleanup project. “It was all the Ashtabula River Partnership (ARP) members working together that made this happen.”
The ARP also got help from Ohio legislators, including Senator George Voinovich, who secured $7 million from the state of Ohio. Both Voinovich and Representative Steven LaTourette supported the passage and funding of the Great Lakes Legacy Act.
“(Ashtabula) is a national poster child for a clean-up eﬀort leading the way for other Great Lakes Areas of Concern,” said Congressman LaTourette, speaking at the celebration held in 2008 for the project as it neared completion. “This shows what the Great Lakes Legacy Act can do.”
In 1987, the lower two miles of the river had been designated as one of 43 Areas of Concern by the International Joint Commission (IJC), a group of government entities in the U.S. and Canada that determined sites in the Great Lakes region that had become polluted because of unregulated discharges and mismanagement of hazardous waste. Although a Remedial Action Plan for the river was published in 1991, no real progress was made until the community itself, along with partners including Ohio Sea Grant, chose to organize the ARP in 1994.
“We were familiar with the amount of time it took to get Fields Brooks, a nearby Superfund site, cleaned up,” said Carl Anderson, a community activist. “It would take 20 or 30 years to get it cleaned up, and then it would have the stigma of being a Superfund site. Would people be able to keep their boats in a Superfund site? We knew the water wasn’t bad, just the sediment was, and we had to get that out of there.”
Still, even after the ARP was established, it took another eight years and the passing of the Great Lakes Legacy Act in 2002 before funding for the project was found, and another ﬁve years before all the pieces were set in place. Dredging oﬃcially began in October 2007 and wrapped up in July 2008.
“The Ashtabula River Great Lakes Legacy Act Project was a wonderful example of the power of strong partnerships,” said Susan Boehme, Coastal Sediment Specialist for Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and Liaison to the U.S. EPA Great Lakes National Program Oﬃce (GLNPO). “The $60 million in funding provided by GLNPO, the Ashtabula River Cooperative Group II, and the state of Ohio worked together as a team to ensure the clean-up project was successful.”
Beyond the obvious environmental beneﬁts of the dredged river, having the deep draft available allows for increased shipping opportunities, and a cleaner river should help provide new opportunities for local marinas and businesses.
Ohio Sea Grant is currently developing an economic baseline for the area to measure the potential economic gains that may result from the Ashtabula River project. Economic data collected from local boaters, marinas, and small businesses in the harbor area will allow a comparison to be made in a few years when the river is fully restored.
Note: This article was adapted from “Dredging Up the Polluted Past,” originally published in Winter/Spring 2009 Twine Line, and “A Career of Service,” originally published in Fall/Winter 2014 Twine Line.