U.S. and State of Ohio Reach USD 5.5 Million Settlement over Ashtabula River

The Department of Justice and Ohio Attorney General have reached a proposed settlement of claims for injuries to natural resources caused by past releases and discharges of hazardous substances into the lower Ashtabula River and Harbor in northeast Ohio.

The consent decree, valued at approximately $5.5 million, was filed today in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio on behalf of the designated natural resource trustees, including the Department of the Interior, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

“This agreement will compensate the public for precious natural resources that were damaged by hazardous pollutants released into the Ashtabula watershed over more than half a century,” said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. “The settlement also fosters the restoration of wildlife habitat and recreational resources along the Ashtabula that the people of Ohio will be able to enjoy for many years to come.”

“Completion of these negotiations marks a major milestone in our collective efforts to restore the Ashtabula River,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. “Careful stewardship of our waterways and natural resources will ensure that they can be enjoyed by our kids and grandkids. The federal and state trustees are to be commended for their diligent efforts.”

“This settlement is the result of close coordination among the natural resource trustees, local community stakeholders, and the responsible parties,” said U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Regional Director Tom Melius. “This successful collaboration has resulted in a win-win proposition for the Ashtabula River basin community, enabling community enjoyment of the outdoors and wildlife while promoting a healthy community economy.”

The agreement provides for the acquisition of several ecologically-valuable properties along the Ashtabula River, implementation of habitat restoration projects and land use restrictions to protect restoration properties and reimbursement of natural resource damage assessment costs incurred by the natural resource trustees.

“It is important to maintain recreational and economic vitality along the Ashtabula River,” said Ohio EPA Director Scott Nally. “Our Agency will continue to work to restore and protect this great resource that is an essential part of these Northeast Ohio communities.”

Complaints filed by the United States and state of Ohio allege that at various times since the 1940s, numerous industrial facilities in Ashtabula released hazardous pollutants to the river including polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, chlorinated solvents and low-level radioactive materials. The released hazardous substances injured natural resources in the Ashtabula River and Harbor, resulting in fish consumption advisories and impaired navigational use of the river. To compensate the public for the value of impaired or lost natural resources, the complainants sought damages from parties that allegedly owned or operated (either directly or through predecessors) facilities where hazardous substances were released and from parties that allegedly arranged for disposal of hazardous substances at one or more of the facilities. Eighteen companies are participating in the settlement. Several federal agencies are also responsible for making payments totaling approximately $768,800.

Dredging projects carried out under the Great Lakes Legacy Act and the Water Resources Development Act removed almost 600,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments from the lower Ashtabula River between 2006 and 2008. The responsible parties previously contributed approximately $23 million toward the cost of the sediment cleanup, and many of the parties also participated in a cleanup of the Fields Brook superfund site, an alleged source of contamination in the lower Ashtabula River.

With contamination already dredged from the river, the proposed settlement targets habitat enhancement and protection. Under the consent decree, restoration projects approved by the natural resource trustees will be implemented by two groups of responsible parties – a group of four railroad companies and a separate group of 14 companies known as the Ashtabula River Cooperating Group II (ARCG II).

The railroads will implement a restoration project on a 6.4 acre riparian parcel known as the 5½ Slip peninsula, which abuts a fish habitat enhancement project previously constructed as part of the Great Lakes Legacy Act sediment cleanup project. The restoration project will include replacing invasive plant species with a diverse array of native plants; excavating a channel across the peninsula to establish a hydrologic connection between the 5½ Slip and main channel of the Ashtabula River; and establishing an area of emergent wetland habitat along the newly constructed channel. Land use restrictions will be established on the 5 ½ Slip peninsula to protect the character of the restored property.

ARCG II has agreed to develop and implement various restoration projects identified in the consent decree. One of the restoration properties, known as the former CDM property, is a 28-acre riverfront parcel along the northern boundary of Indian Trails Park. The restoration project will include enhancing a six-acre wetland area through invasive species control; planting a diverse array of native vegetation; and installing other improvements, including a canoe launch, boardwalk and small parking area to facilitate public use of the property.

Five other ARCG II restoration properties identified in the decree contain high natural resource value, including rare fen habitat, old growth forest and areas that provide ideal habitat and foraging for various threatened or endangered species. These properties occupy more than 200 acres and include 3.4 miles of river frontage. Some adjoin or are close to park areas held by the Ashtabula Township Park Commission. Collectively, these properties will preserve a natural corridor along an urbanized stretch of river.

In addition to restoration properties already acquired by ARCG II, the proposed settlement allows trustees to identify additional properties for possible acquisition and restoration. ARCG II agreed to spend up to $1.45 million to acquire and restore additional properties.

The trustees will approve all restoration work. The restoration properties will ultimately be transferred to park districts, non-profit organizations or other institutions acceptable to the trustees. The properties also will be subject to environmental covenants that establish land use restrictions designed to preserve the natural resource value of the properties.

Dredging Today Staff, May 4, 2012;