Community demands answers, input after Detroit River contamination

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib and state Rep. Tyrone Carter, April 22, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Updated and corrected, 10:15 a.m. 12/13/19

A former uranium-contaminated site that collapsed into the Detroit River late last month continues to spark concern from residents.*

More than 200 people attended a community meeting Thursday night to hear an update from government officials concerning the site leased by Detroit Bulk Storage. 

The Advance previously reported that on Nov. 26, sediment from the property that once processed uranium for the 1940s Manhattan Project developing the nuclear bomb toppled into the Detroit River in Southwest Detroit. The site is next to Historic Fort Wayne and close to where the new Gordie Howe International Bridge is slated to be built. 

Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) officials say expedited water samples near the site show contaminant levels were not detectable or well below water quality standards.

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

However, during the audience participation portion of the meeting, several participants expressed concerns and called for direct citizen input in planning and decision-making.

“I think that we all know that climate change is here so these types of incidents related to water levels and high heat are going to become more common in Detroit,” said Ahmina Maxey, a Southwest Detroit resident. “It’s our job as a community to come up with a climate adaptation plan. I have concerns about this particular company [Detroit Bulk Storage] because they were operating without a permit. … I think that the level of trust is not there.”

Rep. Rashida Tlaib addresses about 200 residents about the Detroit Bulk Storage collapse, Dec. 12, 2019 | Ken Coleman

The meeting was called by several environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, Michigan United and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, as well as U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) and Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield). Representatives from Mayor Mike Duggan’s office attended the two-hour meeting held at Cass Commons. So did state Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), state Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit), state Rep. Cynthia Johnson (D-Detroit) and several members of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office, including Melanie Brown, director of community affairs. 

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.

Several speakers during the meeting expressed concern that government officials didn’t have an organized plan to inform residents. The also questioned whether those agencies had the resources to hold polluters accountable. 

EGLE Director Liesl Clark | Claire Moore

Several hours prior to the community meeting, EGLE Director Liesl Eichler Clark tweeted  on Thursday: “I and the whole @MichiganEGLE team are committed to protecting Michigan’s public health and environment. Our vision is a #Michigan that respects people, treasures natural resources and fosters thriving communities throughout our two peninsulas.”

EGLE said that three water samples were taken: 2,540 feet upstream from the Detroit Bulk Storage site, directly in front of the spill area, and 1,040 feet downstream.

Test results showed no detectable levels of PCBs, uranium, metals, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, and several other industrial pollutants. Suspended solids and barium were detected, but at levels well below water quality standards. 

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“Expedited water samples analyzed by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy’s lab in Lansing found that the water quality around the Detroit Bulk Storage spill site do not show an adverse effect from the shoreline collapse,” read a report disseminated during the meeting. 

On Friday, EGLE staff took radiological readings at more than 1,000 locations on the Detroit Bulk Storage site and found levels that were at or below normal levels that are naturally occurring. Background radiation levels farthest from the river were at 4 microroentgen per hour (uR/hr). Testing closer to the water, including tests from inside the crevasses opened by the sediment collapse, ranged between 3 and 5 Ur/hr. Naturally-occurring radiation levels in Michigan are typically between 5 and 8 (uR/hr).

Brenda Lawrence at the 2018 AFGE Legislative Conference. | Keith Mellnick, Flickr

Lawrence, who represents a portion of the Southwest Detroit community, said that she was “proud” of the state government response but said, “It’s about all of us working together.”

“Water quality in Michigan is a sensitive issue,” she told the audience. “After we saw what happened in Flint [with the water crisis] and the fact that government was responsible for what happened, I’m just as sensitive as you are.”

EGLE has issued a violation notice to Erickson’s, which owns the property, and “due care” notices to Revere Dock LLC and Detroit Bulk Storage. Erickson’s has 15 days to submit a plan for how it will remediate the spill. Revere and DBS have 30 days to submit a plan.*

Chang and Carter, who also represent the community in the state Legislature, pointed out that they are in support of legislation that requires bulk solid materials be properly covered to prevent airborne dust and water runoff into local waterways.

Rep. Stephanie Chang talks with constituents | Ken Coleman

Chang’s Senate Bill 325  also mandates that these materials be securely contained when transported. enclosure of piles that contain hazardous materials like pet coal and others.

Carter’s House Bill 4264 requires the development of a state fund that would receive a portion of fines and fees collected from polluters and that those dollars be used to benefit communities impacted by harmful air and water.

Tlaib reminded the audience to stay involved and continue to pressure local, state and federal officials for information and results.

“This is not wrong for us to ask the questions,” Tlaib said. “It actually gives them credibility when they go back to their bosses. The lack of trust is there and we must demand answers to these questions that we have.” 

* This story has been corrected on EGLE’s action involving the companies.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting 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.