Lake Erie's Facility 3 needs more oversight
A lead editorial in The Blade newspaper in Toledo took aim this week at the suspected contamination of the lower Maumee River/Maumee Bay/western Lake Erie resulting from the lackadaisical — at best — management of what is known as Facility 3.
The editorial is yet another wake-up call to a much-ignored, 600-pound gorilla sitting in the Lake Erie living room. Facility 3 was built by the U.S, Army Corps of Engineers some 30 years ago to hold the polluted river-bottom dredgings, part of free public maintenance of the Toledo Ship Channel for private Great Lakes and overseas shipping.
But along the way, the city of Toledo got the bright idea that it could get rid of, so to say, the Class B sludge generated by the city sewage treatment plant by dumping it in Facility 3, which was designed to decant water from the river dredgings.
The heavily agricultural Maumee River watershed dumps more bottom-clogging silt — actually eroded, prime farm soils — into the lower river and bay than all the other rivers on the Great Lakes combined. Hence the annual dredging of the Toledo Ship Channel.
The river also contributes the bulk of the phosphorus-fertilizer overdosing — again primarily from farmland erosion — that feeds the infamous toxic algae blooms, another of which looms for western Lake Erie later this summer. Problems enough.
Trouble is, Class B sludge on Facility 3 is nasty, still laced with unhealthy E. coli bacteria, various pathogens, and hospital and industrial waste. The stuff has to be treated and contained before it is transformed into pathogen-free Class A sludge, suitable for land application, for example, use a soil conditioner/mulch. Whether that is happening at Facility 3 is highly questionable, given that it was built to actually drain away water and given that millions of tons of Class B sludge have been dumped there over the years and it continues so.
Record keeping about how much Class B was “treated” and removed, where it went, etc., has been shoddy and vague at best. The city and state have pretended to ignore this beast of a problem because it may cost money to fix what the newspaper called the Great Lakes largest automatic flush-toilet.
Individual farmers would be pilloried by the Ohio EPA if they allowed application of Class B sludge on their fields without its timely incorporation into the soil. And land applications would not be allowed during rainstorms. Yet deluges this summer and for years have dumped tens of millions of gallons of water on Facility 3 — and it leaches off into Lake Erie and nobody cares.
It always is easy to beat up on the little guy — individual landowners in the case of overseeing Class B sludge handling — while letting big entities like cities and industries flaunt the same rules. Transparent accounting and testing and monitoring of Facility 3 needs to be done — by the U.S. EPA if city and state remain reluctant to act responsibly and openly.
Shallow western Lake Erie, moreover, is the major fisheries spawning ground and nursery of the lake. It is a major source of drinking water, and boating and beach recreation in addition to all the fishing. Lake Erie deserves a fair, open accounting of Facility 3.