Interview: Future of the Great Lakes Dredging
Long term planning and oversight of the U.S Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) dredging operations on the Great Lakes is the responsibility of Brig. Gen. Richard G. Kaiser, USACE Great Lakes and Ohio Rivers Division Commander.
Recently Brig. Gen. Kaiser, who grew up in Racine, Wisconsin along the shores of Lake Michigan, explained the challenges, successes, and the road forward for dredging the Great Lakes harbors.
Q: Why is dredging so important to the Great Lakes harbors?
Brig. Gen. Kaiser: Dredging of the harbors and connecting channels is vital to the functionality of the Great Lakes Navigation System (GLNS) and vital to the overall U.S. economy.
The GLNS is a crucial component of transportation in the U.S. and is made up of an interconnected system of 140 commercial and recreational harbors. Each of the commercial harbors on the Great Lakes are interconnected – if one is not maintained it will impact another harbor in the system, causing the light loading of ships and the reduction of cargo moved. This reduces efficiency and costs industry much more to move goods.
When maintained properly, the GLNS saves shippers approximately $3.6 billion per year over the next least costly mode of transportation, such as road or rail. This translates directly into more competitive American steel, lower cost energy, and ultimately more American jobs.
Moreover, recent economic impact studies indicate that the GLNS annually generates $33.6 billion in business revenue and an additional $115.5 billion from related user industries. It also generates 226,800 direct jobs and an additional 447,600 in related user jobs. That is precisely why dredging is so important to our U.S. economy!
Q: What is the current status of dredging on the Great Lakes?
Brig. Gen. Kaiser: As you know, dredging operations have taken place on the Great Lakes for well over a hundred years. Dredging and dredged material management is one of the top Great Lakes priorities and challenges. Typically, we have not always received sufficient funding to dredge every harbor to the desired depth, but in the recent years, our dredging budgets have improved and we are making progress to decrease the dredging backlog.
This year we have been provided a reasonable budget that allows us to reduce some backlog. We have many harbors with successful dredged material management plans, but also some that will require more attention.
With the improved dredging budgets we have been able to reduce the dredging backlog in Fiscal Year 2014 for the first time in five years, and in 2015 we expect to do the same. The higher amounts of funding have also allowed us to dredge many of the low use harbors as these harbors have been recognized as important elements of our interdependent system despite their lower tonnage.
Although we typically do not receive funding for recreational harbors, there is a growing awareness by local and state governments that using our contributed funds process is an effective way to keep these harbors dredged. A good example of this was in Fiscal Year 2013 when the State of Michigan released over $21 million to dredge critical recreational harbors. For seven of those harbors, the state contributed funds directly to the USACE to dredge the federal channels in these recreational harbors.
Another challenge we face is that a portion of the material dredged from the Great Lakes channels and harbors is sediment that may contain contaminants from decades of industrial, residential, and/or municipal use of the river and could have a negative impact on the aquatic environment.
We call these types of sediments legacy sediments. Legacy sediments are considered unsuitable for open lake placement or beneficial uses and must be placed into a confined disposal facility (CDF). The standards that define which sediments are unsuitable come from the EPA and USACE developed “Great Lakes Dredged Material Testing and Evaluation Manual,” and the “Inland Testing Manual.”
When CDFs were built, they were constructed with an intended 10-year design life. The belief at the time was that after 10 years, sediments would then be suitable for a return to open lake placement.
However, the need to confine contaminated sediment has continued and most CDFs have been re-worked and used for over 40 years – four times the design life! As we continue to use CDFs, space is becoming more limited. Without adequate CDF capacity, dredging operations could be curtailed at some harbors with contaminated sediments, resulting in the accumulation of shoaled material, which negatively impacts navigation. One-third of the 20 active Great Lakes CDFs will reach full capacity over the next five years.
Dredging funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Legacy Act and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative programs has helped to remove over one million cubic yards of legacy sediments and should be applauded. This has required a strong partnership between the USACE, EPA, private industry, and nonprofit organizations, and should be looked at as a model of success on the Great Lakes.
Q: What determines where the sediment is placed, and who pays for it?
Brig. Gen. Kaiser: First, it is critical to realize that dredged sediment has to go somewhere, and the real question is – where does it go? It’s important to evaluate the sediment using a rational scientific method, rather than making assumptions based on recollections of events that occurred during the 1950’s and 60’s. USACE always uses a rational scientific method to determine sediment quality.
USACE evaluates the suitability of sediment for open lake placement in accordance with Clean Water Act Section 404(b)(1) Guidelines based on protocols prescribed in the “Great Lakes Dredged Material Testing and Evaluation Manual,” and the “Inland Testing Manual”. These manuals provide formal regional and national guidance developed and adopted in concert with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These are the Federal Standards which guide all our operations – in some cases, states have developed more stringent standards than the Federal Government, and when this occurs it becomes the states’ responsibility to pay for any costs that exceed the Federal Standard.
Federal regulations mandate that USACE operates in a manner consistent with the “Federal Standard” and identifies the least cost alternative that is both technically feasible and environmentally suitable according to federal guidelines. The Federal Standard sets the maximum investment USACE may make and is the basis against which all other alternatives must be compared.
So, if a state requires a higher standard, USACE can implement the standard, but the state or another non-federal sponsor must pay the cost differential. I want to be clear – costlier alternatives can be implemented if a cost-share partner contributes the difference, as is the case for example in Waukegan, IL where the state pays the difference for increased placement costs at the state-desired placement site.
USACE applies the Federal Standard consistently across the Great Lakes to ensure the system is properly maintained with the limited Federal funding we have.
Q: What is being done to improve the Great Lakes harbors and navigation system?
Brig. Gen. Kaiser: The President recently released his Fiscal Year 2016 budget and the news was very positive for the Great Lakes; with a navigation system budget of $112 million – the largest system budget that we have seen since we began regional budgeting for the Great Lakes in 2008.
The budget includes:
- A $49 million dredging program that will reduce backlog;
- Key Soo Locks Asset Renewal projects, that will continue to reduce the risk of outages at that important facility;
- Continued investment in dredged material management and structure repair.
I am also proud to say that USACE Buffalo, Chicago, and Detroit districts are actively working with local sponsors at key harbors throughout the Great Lakes to develop innovative solutions to the dredged material management challenge.
We have had great success in Green Bay, WI at the Cat Island Dredged Material Disposal Facility. Constructed through a partnership between the EPA and local and state governments, the Cat Island facility provides an innovative solution to dredged material management and also has resulted in a reduction in dredging costs while providing ecosystem benefits. Construction of the Cat Island facility has resulted in a 20-year solution for dredged material placement in Green Bay Harbor.
At Duluth-Superior Harbor, MN the USACE is placing dredged material into a shallow embayment known as the 21st Avenue West Pilot Project. This project is an example of beneficially using dredged sediment by placing the sediment at various depths below the water surface in the embayment. In addition to providing a cost-effective method of dredged material placement, the project also has the added potential benefit of stimulating ecosystem restoration in the embayment.
We are committed to working very hard with Great Lakes states, our partners, and stakeholders to find sustainable solutions at their respective ports. There are two real obstacles we will face: (1) finding and demonstrating nontraditional solutions and perhaps more importantly, (2) changing the culture to accept these solutions as viable alternatives.
What do I mean by culture? Most folks have not recognized that in the aggregate, Great Lakes sediments have 80% fewer PCBs than even in the 1980s. That is a tremendous accomplishment and a true sign of success from our environmental movement. We need to change the perception of dredged material from a spoil to a valuable resource. People need to understand that many dredged materials can and should be used for beneficial re-use projects.
Q: What do you see as the road forward for dredging on the Great Lakes?
Brig. Gen. Kaiser: As a product myself of the Great Lakes, I am proud to proclaim that the USACE stands for public safety and environmental stewardship and we share in the public’s concern for the well-being of the Great Lakes. We will continue to work hard at improving the condition and reliability of the Great Lakes Navigation System – it is vital for our continued economic success and vital for the regional and national economies.
Realizing that we do have a significant backlog of dredging and dredged material management needs on the Great Lakes, we are embarking on a first-of-its kind Public Private Partnership (PPP) opportunity. This initiative is the first step in investigating ways that we can work with local and state governments and industry on alternative resourcing and financing. It’s an exciting opportunity for both USACE and our many partners along the Great Lakes.
Furthermore, by treating the Great Lakes as a system, the USACE will be better equipped to use our constantly improving tools and science to reduce risk and reliability to maximize the Value to the Nation generated by the Great Lakes Navigation System.
We appreciate the collaboration of all our stakeholders in making the very hard decisions on system priorities. We look forward to continuing to maintain the Great Lakes and serving the Nation.