For years bird watchers, conservationists and environmental groups have been clamoring for public access to Dike 14, an artificial island near Gordon State Park made from polluted sediments dredged from the Cuyahoga River. Now it looks like they're finally going to get it. But as the city of Cleveland moves ahead with designing the 88-acre site as part of its lakefront master plan, questions about the risks to humans and wildlife remain. ideastream's Karen Schaefer reports.
For many people, it's birds the draw them once or twice a year on a rare public tour of Dike 14. During spring and summer migrations birds flock here by the thousands to feed and rest undisturbed on the lush, self-seeded greenery behind the high, padlocked fence. But as Wendy Weirich, a naturalist with the Cleveland Metroparks knows, Dike 14 is not exactly an avian paradise.
Wendy Weirich: You're walking what was once the bottom of the Cuyahoga River.
Dike 14 is actually an industrial brown field site. It's one of 45 so-called contained disposal facilities built throughout the Great Lakes by the Army Corps of Engineers to dump polluted river and harbor dredgings, a continuing legacy of the region's industrial past.
Aaron Jennings: We made steel in Cleveland and then we made things out of the steel.
Aaron Jennings is an environmental engineer at Case Western Reserve University who's analyzed contaminant data from the site collected by the Corps. Heavy metals are the primary pollutants in the wet mud that was pumped into the dike starting in 1979. But Jennings says the data shows random hotspots even on the surface where levels of lead, chromium or zinc are so high they're off the chart.
Aaron Jennings: The metals are attached firmly to that soil. The way they're going to affect your health is if you ingest that soil or you inhale that soil.
Jennings worries about the health risks, especially for children who might visit the dike on school trips.
Aaron Jennings: It needs to have some mechanism for isolating people from those soils. I just would not approve of contact use the way it is now.
Boardwalks are one way of preventing human visitors from having direct contact with the dirt. But many believe wildlife also needs to be protected. Harvey Webster, director of Wildlife Resources for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, is also a member of the Dike 14 Environmental Education Collaborative, a group encouraging the use of the site for educating kids. Webster says there may be some harm to nesting species, but...
Harvey Webster: The fact of the matter is, it's being used regardless. Whether it's a hot site or not a hot site, the birds are coming through as they are through many other hot sites, brown sites and other sites that you might find.
Webster says he would like to improve their habitat. Jan Miller, an Army Corps engineer with the Great Lakes and Ohio River program office in Chicago, says there are ways to do that. He's written extensively on studies of another dike in Buffalo, New York.
Jan Miller: You may want to either make sure that you isolate the plants and animals that grow on the top of this thing from the most contaminated sediments by having either a buffer layer or else allowing only selected types of plants and animals that don't take up these contaminants to visit the site.
Harvey Webster and his colleagues are prepared to weed through the masses of native and non-native species that have self-seeded on Dike 14 and eliminate those that could pass on pollution. But to do that they need to know where the worst pollution is.
Harvey Webster: I think one of the frustrating things is that we haven't seen the risk assessment done to now. That we've been having these conversations over the last couple of years basically without having the information that would inform us as what's the best way to go.
The city of Cleveland, following its master plan for the lakefront, has just signed a contract to create a plan for a Dike 14 nature preserve with Biohabitats, an environmental consulting and design firm with offices in Cleveland. But an environmental risk assessment won't come first. Cleveland parks director Natalie Ronayne says the city simply can't afford it.
Natalie Ronayne: I think the lowest bid was $120,000. So what we're going to do is master plan the site in phases and then go after risk assessment dollars to accommodate those phases.
Ronayne says the city has applied for an Army Corps grant to fund environmental assessments. But she says the city and community groups must decide by this September on a plan for boardwalks, paths and other improvements or lose their design funding. Then if environmental assessment uncovers hotspots that interfere with the preserve designs, there'll be plenty of time to change them. In Cleveland, Karen Schaefer, 90.3.