by Tom Henry

A first-of-its-kind agreement to improve western Lake Erie’s water quality was announced Wednesday by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, one that both sides agree could result in an eventual phase-down of the federal government’s highly controversial practice of redepositing phosphorus-laden sediment from the Toledo shipping channel into the lake’s North Maumee Bay.

The two agencies — at odds over the practice since the 1980s — jointly announced they will use $10 million Gov. John Kasich’s administration made available through the state capital budget to start testing potential engineering solutions this summer. Perhaps more importantly, the agreement allows part of that money to be used to offset the differences between those and the conventional open-lake dumping practice.

For years, Great Lakes scientists and area officials have yearned for ways to prevent the huge volumes of silt dredged annually by the Corps — enough to fill downtown Toledo’s tallest skyscraper three times — from being redeposited in the water.

Ideas have included using the sediment to reclaim Ohio’s vast number of abandoned mines, to cover landfills, to replenish farm fields, to build fish habitats, or to protect wetlands and shorelines. Officials have even considered mixing the dirt with other materials to make bricks.

But none ever got off the drawing table because they weren’t seen as economically viable.

The Corps, which is under federal mandate to keep federal shipping channels open, also is under a federal mandate to do the least expensive option, which is simply dumping the sediment away from the shipping channel, in North Maumee Bay.

But the scientific community and state officials from both parties in Michigan and Ohio — including a long list of governors and state environmental directors — have cried foul.

Scientists claim the practice has exacerbated the lake’s algae problem, destroyed fish habitat, and impaired water quality. Though the sediment is generally clean, they argue it still contains heavy concentrations of algae-growing phosphorus and that the method of disposal itself makes the most fragile part of the Great Lakes too murky.