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How to reuse wet sludge is what Great Lakes Dredging Team is in town to discover

Mike Desmond

To keep waters navigable, they have to be dredged to allow the removal of vast volumes of wet sludge so ships can get through. Experts from around the Great Lakes are in town to see what this area does with dredged materials.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

If you are in the port business, one of the continuing problems is what to do with the material dredged up to keep channels open and deep enough for ships. That is true in ocean ports and in ports along the Great Lakes, of which Buffalo remains one.

A tour for the Great Lakes Dredging Team showed that, when a mammoth lake freighter went past the Outer Harbor Monday. The team visited the Outer Harbor and Unity Island and continues in conference Tuesday, talking about what to do with dredged material.

Much of the Outer Harbor is made up of dredged material from the harbor and Buffalo River that has gradually been used to create dry land on what wasn't dry not that many decades ago.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation Senior Director of Design Mark Wendel told the visitors about Slip Three at Wilkeson Pointe.

"This is all the work of the Army Corps, who used dredged material to bring this up to an eight-foot depth and create wetland habitat space on there, as well as utilization again for kayaks and standing paddle boats," Wendel said.

Wendel said the goal of the Outer Harbor is to make it more recreational, with vast lawn and trees and areas for boats.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

"It's all going to be at recreation, public access," he said. "We've done a number of public hearings and meeting with people and it really focused in on more of what Canalside, our development over there, on the other side of that urban density of building structures that needs to be worked out and let this be more of a public access for the community."

Getting to that decision was a long, drawn-out process, as the public fought most development on the Outer Harbor.

The two sites visited are very different, since the Outer Harbor had most of its visible work done years ago and the Unity Island Park project is still underway, creating an urban wetland on the edge of the Niagara River.

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

A bus tour of Unity Island Park showed where the Corps is creating an urban wetland habitat in what was once a bay on the Niagara River and is now one of the ponds in the park. Unity Island Park used 60,000 cubic yards of material and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Ecologist Andrew Hannes said the project could have used 100,000 cubic yards.

"You really kind of have to work with the human-modified features that are in place and try to create habitat uplift, where possible," said Hannes of Unity Island Park. "So this was an instance where we weren't getting a whole lot of value out of the existing condition in this habitat. We were able to beneficially use dredging material from the Buffalo River, put it in here and create a coastal wetland habitat."

At the end of next year, the ponds in the park will be turned back to the city, with instructions on how to continue growing the water vegetation contractors for the Corps has planted.

"We want to keep the geese out. We want to keep the carp out. We're not going to keep muskrat out, I don't think there's going to be any sense in that," said Hannes. "Yes, so it's largely just to protect the planting, give them a better shot at establishing before herbivores get in there and start rooting around."

Credit Mike Desmond / WBFO News

Dan Breneman, state program administrator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency based in Duluth, deals with the contaminated St. Louis River and wants to see what is done here with contaminated dredge material.

"They're designated as an area of concern because of legacy contaminants and habitat alterations," Breneman said, "and so we've been involved with this Great Lakes Dredging Team to come up with ideas to beneficially use the dredge material to improve habitat and also to mitigate some of the contaminated sediments that were left in the harbor."

Corps Chicago District Environmental Engineer Jennifer Miller had a similar goal.

"Buffalo District has some great projects with beneficial use and Chicago District wants to also do some similar things," said Miller. "We've had more of contaminated material and so we have some harbors just getting to this stage now, where we can look at beneficial use and we hope to build on their successes here and do a lot of lessons learned."