Sunday, October 31, 1999

Gravel mining altering character of the river

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Bulldozers and backhoes lumber along the banks and plow into the Great Miami River, scooping loads of gravel from beneath the murky water and depositing them on shore.

        Churning the water and changing the shape of the stream, gravel mining companies are a primary environmental threat to rivers of the post-Clean Water Act age, scientists say. And they are multiplying.

        “When you're in there with heavy equipment, there is just no question that you're having heavy effects on the aquatic life and the ability of fish to thrive. ... You're causing potentially irreversible damage to the habitat of the stream,” said Jeff Skelding, water policy coordinator with the Ohio Environmental Council, Ohio's largest grass-roots environmental advocacy group.

        Following the Clean Water Act of 1972, national regulators shut down dirty industries and other easily identifiable, “point-source” polluters. Now they are focusing on less easily managed pollutants, including the sediment dredged up by gravel mines and runoff from developed areas and farm fields.

        The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates gravel mining, is dealing with a recent court decision that drained its authority. It can control operations that do intentional landfills, but not those that stir up or drop sediment back into the river stream as a byproduct of mining.

        “Now no one has much regulation over it. You can get in there and move gravel and disturb creeks and there's less law than there used to be,” said Randy Hoover, aquatic biologist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife. “The environmental folks are kind of running around scratching their head saying, "What do we do about this now?' ... It's all a big mess.'”

Riverbed benefits
        But from a development point of view, gravel mining is not so bad.

        It provides raw construction material and jobs. It can reconfigure the river to prevent natural bank erosion. And as a fringe benefit, it adds shallow bars atop deep holes where fishermen perch.

        “It's not a hassle to fish down here,” said 23-year-old Steve Smith, casting his line from a gravel bar a few feet from the Two Mile Dam in Hamilton in the shadow of Danny Drake Excavating. The company is permitted to remove large boulders and sediment that could damage the dam.

        “You just pull up your car, hop out and come down. You used to have to fish from the banks. Now you can walk down into the river,” echoed his brother, Mike, 30, who has been visiting the spot since he was a boy. “(The gravel mining) has changed the entire way the river runs. It's nice.”

        Retired mines have become recreational reservoirs such as the Dayton Hydrobowl on the Mad River, just north of where it joins the Great Miami. And many operate not within the river, but on the banks or in an area sectioned off from the main flow by a dike.

        “Our industry is very, very conscious of the environmental impact of our operations and we follow all of the regulations to the letter,” said Pat Jacomet, director of technical services for the Ohio Aggregates and Industrial Minerals Association. “I think it's a give-and-take situation. We try to leave our sites in a usable, aesthetically pleasing situation.”

        But scientists say mining may stir up sediment contaminated by past industrial spills, spreading toxins downriver. Fine-grained sand and silt can impede fish and bugs, and clog water treatment plants.

        Mining lowers the riverbed and causes the river to flow faster and cut deeper. It creates deep pools that may attract fish, but affect their natural feeding and spawning patterns.

        Mining on riverbanks destroys the natural buffer zone of trees and plants.

        And a retired mine leaves a hole extending deep into the ground over the pollution-sensitive Great Miami Aquifer — the sole source of drinking water for more than 90 percent of Southwestern Ohio residents. Its use must be carefully regulated to protect the aquifer.

        Gravel mines dot the length of the Great Miami River, with a concentration in Hamilton County. There are several in Whitewater Township, which has no zoning authority and little opportunity for public control of land use policy.

        “Because we have the river, our area is rich in gravel. And gravel is a commodity just like gold or anything else. It's a fact of life and it's an enterprising business,” said Whitewater Township Trustee Hubert Brown. Most local governments are trying to balance economic interests and development pressure with environmental concern.

        But the increasing number of gravel mines is bringing the issue to a head.

        A few mines here and there were OK, Mr. Hoover said. But “now there are (many) and ... they remove a lot of material, and other permits are being applied for right now. What's important to the population — being able to mine gravel cheaply out of the river, or is it the overall health of the stream?”

Turning point
        Mary Ellen Betz, who has lived across the river from Dravo Park in Colerain Township for 23 years s has her answer: “It's a good natural setting for watching wildlife, but part of what I see from home are the gravel mines — and that's nothing to look at.”

        “I think (the Great Miami River) is sort of at a turning point. I think it will either go more industrial or it will be maintained and improved. I'm not sure there's any in-between.”


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