The river will be 18-20 feet deep when the dredging is finished.
ASHTABULA (AP) -- A $50 million environmental cleanup under way in the Ashtabula River has residents hoping the project will spark a rebirth for this former industrial city.
More than 500,000 cubic yards of mud polluted with heavy metals, cancer-causing chemicals and radioactive material are being dredged from the river and hauled to a landfill. The dredging began last month.
"We've been waiting for this a long time," said Gretchen Friend, an Ashtabula native and owner of the Riverfront Trader, a nautical gift shop. "I think our day has come."
The river is considered one of the most polluted on the Great Lakes and was a longtime dumping ground for former chemical plants and other industries. In 1983, the state advised people not to eat fish out of the river near Lake Erie because of the contamination.
The river also filled with silt and is now only 12 feet deep at its deepest point, making it difficult for boats to navigate. After the dredging, the river will be 18 feet to 20 feet deep.
City Manager Anthony Cantagallo wants to turn Ashtabula into a tourist destination similar to Canada's Niagara-on-the-Lake, a quaint town along Lake Ontario that's surrounded by wineries and home to the popular Shaw Festival.
Tourism already is Ashtabula County's No. 1 industry, with visitors spending $276 million in the county two years ago. The county's attractions include 15 wineries, 16 covered bridges, a maritime museum, Underground Railroad museum and Finnish-American cultural center.
Signs of revival
Community and business leaders said there are signs of a comeback in the city, about 50 miles east of Cleveland. The school district is building seven new school buildings, and the Hotel Ashtabula downtown is being converted into condominiums. New restaurants are opening, and city leaders are trying to fill 44 vacant stores along Main Street.
"There's a feeling of relief to get this done finally," Ron Phelps, owner of Jack's Marina, said about the dredging. "We won't have to worry if the fish are safe to eat or not, or about kids playing in the river."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is paying $25 million toward the cleanup, the state is paying $7 million, and companies that contributed to the pollution are paying $18 million.