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Great Lakes


Amy Mucha

Ashtabula River Area of Concern

Lake Erie

The Ashtabula River was one of 43 contaminated sites on the Great Lakes designated as a Great Lakes Area of Concern by the United States and Canada under the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. An AOC is a location that has experienced environmental degradation and is considered one of the most contaminated sites on the Great Lakes. Since the early 1990s, the federal government, the State of Ohio and several private companies have spent approximately $85 million to remove contaminated sediment and to restore habitat in the Ashtabula River Area of Concern. Since 2010, almost $14 million from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been used to complete the final actions to remediate and restore this Area of Concern. Of the six environmental impairments that were originally present, three remain. EPA will support monitoring and evaluation to determine when environmental conditions have been restored so that the AOC can be delisted.

The Ashtabula River lies in northeast Ohio, flowing into Lake Erie's central basin at the city of Ashtabula. The city of Ashtabula is the only significant urban center in the watershed. The rest of the drainage basin is predominantly rural and agricultural. Major tributaries include Fields Brook and Strong Brook.


Unregulated discharges and mismanagement of hazardous waste from the 1940s through the late 1970s caused serious contamination in the river's sediment and degraded its biological communities. Major pollutants include polychlorinated biphenyls, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, mercury and other heavy metals. Regular dredging was prevented due to contaminated sediments, seriously impeding both commercial and recreational navigation.

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Beneficial Use Impairments

When valuable uses of one of the Great Lakes are harmed by pollution, they are called Beneficial Use Impairments. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement lists 14 BUIs present in the Great Lakes Basin, and the Ashtabula AOC contained six of these:

  • Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption – REMOVED 2014
  • Degradation of fish and wildlife populations – REMOVED 2014
  • Loss of fish and wildlife habitat – REMOVED 2014
  • Degradation of benthos (bottom-dwelling aquatic plants and animals)
  • Restriction on dredging activities
  • Fish tumors or other deformities

Fish consumption advisories were first posted for the AOC in 1983. The impairments primarily trace back to the unregulated release of toxic substances from various industrial facilities, including the Fields Brook Superfund site. When BUIs are substantially improved and other environmental goals are met, an AOC can be considered for delisting. Two U.S. and three Canadian AOCs have been delisted.

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Efforts towards restoration

The Ashtabula River remedial action planning process began in 1988 with the establishment of the Ashtabula River Remedial Action Plan RAP advisory council. That same year, the council agreed to focus upon an AOC defined as the lower two miles of the Ashtabula River, Ashtabula Harbor and the adjacent nearshore of Lake Erie. A variety of government agencies and organizations contributed to the Ashtabula River RAP.

  • In 2013, dredging of the Federal Navigation Channel was completed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Approximately 158,000 cubic yards of sediment were removed. This project ensured that future commercial and recreational navigation needs are adequately addressed.
  • In 2013, an additional environmental dredging project was completed in the Ashtabula North Slip under the Great Lakes Legacy Act (GLLA). This project dredged 11,000 cubic yards of sediment and addressed the last remaining contamination in the AOC.
  • In 2011, 1,500 linear feet of fish shelves were created using funds from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI). The shelf provides native fish species a shallow water habitat to forage and spawn. The project compliments an adjacent water and shoreline project to increase fish habitat completed in 2010 under the GLLA. Outcomes of the effort include remediated wetlands, thousands of feet of fish shelves, improved fish and wildlife habitat, improved oxygen levels and better flow rates.
  • In 2010, a comprehensive restoration project was compelted at the 5 ½ Slip site on the Ashtabula River as part of the GLLA sediment remediation project. The 5 ½ slip area was chosen as the key location within the AOC to accomplish restoration these projects are a critical part of delisting.
  • In 2008, a GLLA cleanup was completed at the cost of approximately $60 million. Over 500,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment were removed, including 25,000 pounds of PCBs. The project was a collaboration between federal, state and local agencies, and the effort helps to decrease risks that the Ashtabula River poses to human health and the environment.
  • In 2008, a post-dredging habitat enhancement report was published. The report detailed possible restoration plans to consider in the future. Projects were prioritized based on specific criteria and most relate to habitat restoration. However, land preservation and human recreation efforts were also considered.
  • In 2003, remediation activities at the Fields Brook Superfund site were completed. Continued monitoring will minimize future contamination in the AOC.
  • In 2001, a comprehensive management plan for the river was issued. The plan includes analyses from an investigative and feasibility study, an environmental impact statement, remedy selection and community support.

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The Ashtabula River Partnership was formed in 1994 to promote voluntary river cleanups. The partnership focuses primarily on project implementation. It has also produced educational brochures to allow the public to become better acquainted with the Ashtabula River and encourage participation in the river’s restoration.

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What is a beneficial use impairment?

Impairment of beneficial use is a change in the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of the Great Lakes system sufficient to cause any of the following 14 use impairments:

  • restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption
  • tainted fish and wildlife flavor
  • loss of fish or wildlife habitat
  • degraded fish and wildlife populations
  • fish tumors or other deformities
  • bird or animal deformities or reproductive problems
  • degradation of benthic macroinvertebrate communities
  • restrictions on dredging activities
  • eutrophication or undesirable algae
  • restrictions on drinking water consumption or taste and odor problems
  • beach closings
  • degradation of aesthetics
  • added costs to agriculture and industry
  • degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton

What is a remedial action plan?

The remedial action plan, or RAP, is a process to clean up the waterfront, rivers, habitats and waters. The United States and Canada, as part of the Great Lake Water Quality Agreement, committed to cooperate with State and Provincial Governments to ensure that RAPs are developed and implemented for all Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes basin. Forty-three AOCs have been identified: 26 located entirely within the United States; 12 located entirely within Canada; and five that are shared by both countries. RAPs address impairments to any one of 14 beneficial uses (e.g., restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption, dredging activities, or drinking water consumption) associated with these areas.

What is a delisting target?

In order to move towards formal delisting, RAPs need delisting targets to gauge their success:

  • Delisting targets should be premised on local goals and related environmental objectives for the watershed; they should be consistent with the applicable federal and state regulations, objectives, guidelines, standards and policies, when available, and the principles and objectives embodied in Annex 2 and supporting parts of the GLWQA.
  • Delisting targets should have measurable indicators.
  • Delisting targets should be developed and periodically reviewed on a site specific basis (allowing for flexibility in addressing local conditions) by the respective state agencies, in consultation with local stakeholder groups. This is particularly important if new information becomes available.

More information about the delisting process>>

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