Detroit residents alarmed, frustrated after uranium-contaminated site collapses into Detroit River

Southwest Detroit, 2015 | Eric Friedebach via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

On Nov. 26, sediment from a property — which once processed uranium for the 1940s Manhattan Project developing the nuclear bomb — toppled into the Detroit River next to Historic Fort Wayne in Southwest Detroit. It’s not far from where the new Gordie Howe International Bridge is slated to be built.

Construction start event, Oct. 5, 2018 | Pont International Gordie Howe International Bridge photo

The property known as the Detroit Dock, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed for decades as a contaminated site for its past use of uranium and other chemicals, is currently leased by Detroit Bulk Storage.  

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) said on Friday that it radiation levels along the river are not a danger to public health.

That statement came after environmental activists and area residents sounded the alarm about the delayed response to the collapse into the waterway of the former Revere Copper and Brass site. 

They are frustrated by the lack of emergency response or notification from EGLE, the Great Lakes Water Authority, which has an intake facility near the site, and the owners of Detroit Bulk Storage. 

Chopper over Revere Copper Site

#Chopper7 is over the Revere Copper Site, which partially collapsed on the American side of the Detroit River. Canadian officials are concerned over radioactive contamination.MORE INFO:

Posted by WXYZ-TV Channel 7 on Thursday, December 5, 2019

“How in the world is it possible that we are hearing from Canadian news networks, days late at that, before we are hearing from our own authorities in charge of protecting us?” said Justin Onwenu, Sierra Club environmental justice organizer referring to the Windsor Star story that first reported the collapse. “This took place days ago and we just found out [Wednesday]. Michiganders deserve emergency response systems in place that will assure communities that public health and safety is adequately protected.”

The site is being used by Detroit Bulk Storage, a company with a controversial record of putting community health at risk, Onwenu said. 

“We worked hard to pass a bulk storage ordinance but it’s not strong or fast enough to make sure we’re preventing and responding adequately to situations like this one,” said Michelle Martinez, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition statewide coordinator.

Environmental justice leaders have also been informed that the storage site did not require permits or monitoring by EGLE, despite the history of contamination at the site and the site’s proximity to the Detroit River.

Michigan residents decry environmental injustice at Detroit congressional hearing

EGLE staff took water samples from the Detroit River upstream and downstream from the site of the limestone pile collapse, as well as in front of the site. The three water samples will be tested for material including suspended solids, metals (including uranium), PCBs, and industrial contaminants. The samples will be processed at EGLE’s lab in Lansing on an expedited timeframe.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Onwenu, Martinez and others are demanding that EGLE and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office create a system that prevents disasters like this one from slipping through regulatory cracks, especially as climate change is only going to make situations like this more common.

Clean Water Action Director Mary Brady-Enerson said that the incident showed the need for a “Polluter Pay Law” — House Bill 4212 sponsored by state Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) and Senate Bill 116, introduced by state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor).

“Bills requiring corporations to cleanup the contamination they create were introduced in February and have been sitting in the Legislature with no action taken by the Republican majority,” she said. “Our water is too important to allow corporate negligence to go unchecked.”

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) sent a letter to both the EPA and EGLE requesting additional information of past testing and what health and environmental problems may exist due to the collapse, including any risks to our public drinking water system

Rep. Rashida Tlaib at a meeting on the EPA in Dearborn, Oct. 11, 2019 | Ken Coleman

“This incident appears to be yet another example of the need to have tight safeguards for industry, especially those who operate near resources that millions depend out. Every family should have clean air and clean water – any incident that endangers that should be given the utmost urgency,” Tlaib said. “My office will continue to push for answers and ensure that no one is being put in harm’s way, urge EPA and EGLE to conduct all necessary testing to ensure public health, and will relay information to the public as soon as we are able.”

Theresa Landrum, a Southwest Detroit resident, echoed her concern.

“As sea levels rise worldwide from the impacts of climate change, the risk to communities from contaminant exposures bordering waterways is immense,” said Landrum. “This situation proves that at this point in time, we’re just not as prepared as we should be.”

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.