Ashtabula River Area of Concern Deemed Recovered and Delisted

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Kevin Bunch
October 19, 2021
epa ashtabula aoc

Ohio’s Ashtabula River, which flows into Lake Erie, was removed from a binational list of “Areas of Concern” in the Great Lakes. This means the river was restored and has recovered from severe environmental degradation it suffered in the previous two centuries.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the accomplishment in August. There were 43 such Areas of Concern, or AOCs, formally designated under the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Canada and the United States share five of these sites, while another 12 are solely within Canada and the remaining 26 are within the United States. Each of these toxic hotspots was determined to have at least one beneficial use impairment, or BUI, ranging from loss of habitat to unwanted algal blooms and restrictions on drinking water or fish consumption.

 The IJC played a role in the establishment of AOCs in the Great Lakes when it recommended governments complete more work to deal with toxic contamination at specific sites in its 1986 Third Biennial Assessment of Progress report. Summarizing work done by its Great Lakes Water Quality Board in the years before, the IJC proposed benchmarks for Great Lakes jurisdictions with chronic contamination problems, as well as for developing criteria for cleaning up contaminated sediments in “locations of concern.” These recommendations formed the backbone for the AOC program.

The IJC Great Lakes Water Quality Board determined that the Ashtabula River was an AOC. When formal designation occurred in 1987, the site had six out of the possible 14 BUIs that needed to be resolved before it could be delisted.

The Ashtabula River’s impairments were linked to industrialization, chemical pollution in the water and sediment, and loss of natural riverbank habitat. There were restrictions on fish consumption from the river due to chemical contamination, loss of fish and wildlife habitats due to industrial development and chemical contamination of the river, a decline in fish and wildlife populations coincident with a degraded benthic (or river bottom) ecosystem, restrictions on dredging sediments in the AOC due to pollution and excessive cancerous tumors found in fish from the area.

History of the Ashtabula River AOC

For the Ashtabula River, the problems started in the 1800s with development along the lower reaches of the waterway to accommodate commercial shipping, which wiped out swaths of natural habitat. The problems intensified in the 1900s as chemical plants started opening upriver in the Fields Brook area, which the EPA  designated a Superfund site in 1993. While the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 limited future chemical contamination, sediments from the river in the Superfund site were still there and were gradually pushed downstream toward the harbor.

“It was clear that contamination was coming down the river,” said Richard Nagle, EPA’s assistant regional counsel, whose involvement in the work on the AOC dates to the 1990s.

While the harbor was routinely dredged for shipping, the area between that and the Fields Brook area—roughly the 24th Street Bridge to Fifth Street in Ashtabula—was not being addressed, said Amy Pelka, a section chief for the EPA’s Great Lakes National Office.

Pelka also started on the AOC cleanup back in the 1990s. Pelka said the sedimentation was bad environmentally for fish populations, and also led to accessibility issues because it made it difficult to get a recreational boat onto the river. What’s more, simply dredging the sediment with all the contamination in it would have stirred it up and created new problems.

ashtabula map lake erie
A map of the Ashtabula River AOC. Credit: US Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA considered expanding the Superfund site to encompass the downriver area to address these issues, but the community opposed such a move. In the end, the EPA agreed not to expand into the river after a public-private partnership formed between the community, US government agencies and local companies. Nagle said that developing a comprehensive management plan to restore the river took several years, and fortuitously the US Congress passed the Great Lakes Legacy Act in 2002, which provided EPA with the authority and funding to begin removing contaminated sediment.

The EPA, along with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Ashtabula City Port Authority, local industry and boat owners, all got on board with the effort to implement the restoration plan, along with technical teams, outreach teams and funding, said Scott Cieniawski, section chief for the EPA’s Great Lakes National Office.

The Cleanup Effort

Almost 500,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment were removed from the river in 2006 and 2007. In-water fish shelves to provide new habitat were installed in 2009 and 2010. The costs for these projects were split evenly between federal and non-federal partners.

The US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative went into effect in 2011, providing millions of dollars to create additional habitat and dredge more contaminated areas from 2011 through 2013. The EPA’s work at the Fields Brook Superfund site included removing contaminants in the Fields Brook tributary and the source areas near the various industrial facilities, preventing new contamination in areas that had already been cleaned up. According to the delisting report, nearly $70 million was spent remediating the BUIs in the Ashtabula AOC.

The Monitoring Phase

With physical restoration work done, the next step was to spend several years monitoring the recovery of the river.

“We started collecting data in 2011 for multiple purposes to see how we were doing on each BUI,” Pelka said. “We looked at physical things, how much sediment there was and how much was contaminated, contamination levels. We looked at the benthos (bottommost layer of the river). We looked at the fish. The state did an index of biotic integrity … all that work had to be documented to show all those improvements.”

Process and Protections

Once the EPA and its local partners collected enough information for a given BUI to show the issue was no longer a problem, it can be removed from the list of active issues in an AOC. For Ashtabula, BUIs related to the loss of fish and wildlife habitat and populations, as well as fish consumption, were removed in 2014. Benthic degradation was removed in 2018, with the fish tumor BUI following in 2019. Finally, the restrictions on dredging were removed in 2020.

Cieniawski said local advisory groups that help monitor and shepherd cleanup work typically transition into stewardship and long-term maintenance of an Area of Concern.

Progress on other Great Lakes AOCs

Since 1987, nine of the 43 AOCs identified in the Great Lakes have been delisted, or removed from the list: six in the United States (Ashtabula is the latest) and three in Canada.

Besides the six delisted AOCs in the United States, Pelka said there are nine other US AOCs in the monitoring phase with cleanup work completed, including locations such as the Rochester Embayment AOC off Lake Ontario and Waukegan Harbor in Lake Michigan.

great lakes areas of concern map
A map of US and binational Areas of Concern across the Great Lakes. Credit: US Environmental Protection Agency

On the Canadian side, three of 12 original listed sites are in the monitoring and recovery phases: Nipigon Bay, Jackfish Bay and Spanish Harbour.

Of these, Nipigon Bay is the closest to being officially delisted. The graphic below shows the status of each Canadian and shared waters AOC for BUI removals. Progress ranges considerably from no BUIs removed yet to four sites having all their BUIs removed. Note that one of these, Nipigon Bay, has all BUIs removed but is not delisted because a final report from the federal government is not yet complete.

progress graphic aocs since 1987
Progress on Canadian and shared AOCs since 1987. More detail is on the Environment and Climate Change Canada website. Credit: Environment and Climate Change Canada

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Kevin Bunch

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.