Along the Water

Using sediment from the Cuyahoga River to benefit the community

Enough sediment is dredged from the Cuyahoga River annually to fill a major league baseball stadium 30-feet deep. Today that sediment is largely treated as waste and placed in lakefront landfills. But what if that material were instead treated as a resource and used in cost-effective and environmentally friendly ways to benefit the community? That’s just what the Port and its partners aim to do. 

Sediment now placed in lakefront landfills known as Confined Disposal Facilities (CDFs) could be used to cap brownfields, create aquatic and upland wildlife habitats, nourish beaches, combine with other material for roadway construction, or fill the basements of demolished houses. 

Because the opportunities are encouraging and the result could benefit the community on several levels, the Port is exploring options in collaboration with other organizations. 

“Ohio EPA supports the beneficial use of clean, dredged sediment,” said Kurt Princic, Ohio EPA’s Northeast District Chief. “With limited capacity in the CDFs, we’re encouraged this could provide a sustainable, long-term solution.” 

Sediment – a combination of sand and gravel – is carried in a constant flow of water into a 5.5 mile stretch of the Cuyahoga River ship channel from both the river and its tributaries. If left untouched, this sediment would settle like a giant sandbar, diminishing the depth of the ship channel from its current 23 feet to roughly four feet in just a few years time. That’s far too shallow for many recreational boats, not to mention the freighters bringing raw materials and goods to companies dependent on waterborne transportation. It would also put the Flats district at risk of frequent flooding. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for dredging the ship channel.  Over several decades, it has placed dredged sediment in CDFs rather than Lake Erie’s open water, mainly because of latent contamination and polluted sediment. Now, the Cuyahoga River’s continuing environmental comeback, combined with creative thinking, has opened intriguing possibilities to use that material in productive ways. 

Use of sediment would benefit the environment and lead to tens of millions of dollars in tax savings by avoiding construction by the Corps of a new CDF. In addition, the Port will  partner with the Corps to launch new cost-effective and sustainable management methods. Under that approach the CDFs would continue to be used for storage, but could also be operated as centers for the distribution and recycling of sediment.

Before creating a pathway  for sediment use, the Port needs to analyze the composition and quality of sediment along different sections of the river.  It’s been doing that work in partnership with The University of Akron, the Corps, and  Ohio EPA, which must approve any new uses of sediment.  “Results  indicate much of the sediment is clean enough to use as fill at industrial and commercial properties, and there is potential for it to be used in residential as well,” said Princic of the Ohio EPA. 

Princic pointed to a 2010 brownfield remediation project that demonstrated the potential for using sediment for commercial purposes. For that project – the redevelopment of a 58-acre site into the Cuyahoga Valley Industrial Park – more than a year’s worth of sediment was used to cover the brownfield. Now the aim is to expand the model to residential uses. 

The Port has spoken with the Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corp. – commonly known as the county land bank – about the prospect of using sediment as fill in basements of foreclosed homes that require demolition. 

“The prospect of working with the Port to secure clean fill is an excellent potential collaboration for the land bank,” said Gus Frangos, the organization’s president.  “It promotes cost efficiency on a number of levels, and if we can guarantee that it’s clean enough, it really becomes a no-brainer for both of us.” 

The land bank plans to demolish between 1,500 and 2,000 homes annually for the foreseeable future, requiring tens of thousands of cubic yards of soil for infill. “We have a huge need, and this could be a major opportunity,” Frangos said. 

The Port is also examining the possibility of placing a collection device on the riverbed to intercept heavier sediment, known as bedload, so that it doesn’t end up in the ship channel in the first place. 

A preliminary study done in 2010 indicated that up to 50,000 cubic yards of bedload could be collected annually, reducing dredging requirements and the associated costs, according to Jim White, the Port’s Director of Sustainable Infrastructure Programs. 

“The math suggests there could be more than $800,000 in cost savings annually,” White said. That’s because dredging one cubic  yard of sediment is almost nine times more expensive than intercepting it. 

Bedload also offers the best potential for use in residential areas because it can be collected before entering the ship channel, where it may become contaminated by sewer and urban runoff.  But not all sediment becomes contaminated and it too could have potential. That’s why the Port is also looking to pinpoint areas of the ship channel where clean sediment can be selectively dredged and marketed for beneficial use. 

While beneficial use could save taxpayers millions, managing sediment still involves costs, whether through bedload interception, beneficial use, or placement in existing CDFs. That’s why if voters approve the Port’s proposed levy – Issue 108 on the countywide ballot – the agency would allocate a portion of the funds to sediment management. 

“We’re not just looking at how to get the sediment out of the channel—that’s not sustainable,” explained White. “We’re thinking about the ultimate fate of this material.  With a little effort, we can transform what has been a throwaway material into a commodity that has value for the community.”