The situation at the collapsed dock at the Detroit Bulk Storage facility in late November has continued to worsen, and experts are concerned that the risk of pollutants moving from soil or sediments into the river—and potentially into water intakes downstream—has increased.
When Detroiters first learned of the collapse of a dock at the Detroit Bulk Storage facility on the Detroit River last month, immediate fears related to possible radiation stemming from the site’s former use by Revere Copper and Brass to manufacture uranium rods for nuclear bombs. Subsequent radiation testing by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) showed that radiation wasn’t likely an issue.
But from the start, experts were just as worried about other contaminants on the site—like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and heavy metals—falling into the river. They were also concerned that the spill could dislodge contaminated sediments in the Detroit riverbed itself.
Last week, WDIV released drone footage showing a massive sinkhole opened up in the middle of the property, raising concerns that buried contaminants could enter the river. The sinkhole has a much larger footprint than the previous collapse, potentially coming into contact with the former site of the Revere Copper and Brass building. Soil tests from 2015 show high levels of heavy metals were found on the property.
Action on the spill has been delayed in part by Detroit Bulk Storage’s failure to submit its remediation plan on time. EGLE issued a press release on January 16th, saying that “it considers inadequate the steps [Detroit Bulk Storage has] taken so far to contain the impact of the aggregate spill into the Detroit River.” The press release notes that “a five-foot silt curtain does not surround the area” and “a sinkhole at the site is developing rapidly in size and allowing additional materials from the property, including aggregate and contaminated soils, to enter the river.” This week the EPA announced Detroit Bulk Storage would install a 20-ft. curtain to prevent erosion. The company is supposed to submit a new management plan on January 24th.
Download an outline of events at the Detroit Bulk Storage site from 1943 to today: Detroit Bulk Storage Timeline of Events Download
A toxic cleanup
Before remediation work in the 1990s, which included the removal of PCB-laden capacitors, underground and above-ground storage tanks, and over 9,000 yards of soil, the site was heavily contaminated. A document obtained by Planet Detroit shows that before remediation, one soil test registered PCBs at 160,000 parts per million (ppm) or, in the words of Ken Drouillard, a professor at the University of Windsor who studies toxic sediments in the Detroit River “pure PCB oil.”
Alan Hayner, a former environmental engineer for the city of Detroit who oversaw the cleanup on behalf of the city, also said that pollutants remain buried on the site in an article that appeared in the Windsor Star in December. “As we were trying to sell the property, we had to tell anybody interested that we left PCBs at eight feet,” he said in the article. “They were not a concern if everything was left the way it was. Now, I would be concerned.”
EGLE spokesperson Nick Assendelft says that the agency (then the DEQ) “removed more than 9,000 cubic yards of soil from the site in the mid-90s”. Assendelft added that testing between the mid-90s and now shows that the highest levels of soil PCBs in soil measured 13 ppm. Although this is below the federal guidelines for remediation, it’s “still really high,” according to Drouillard, noting that the highest typically seen in the Detroit River sediment is…” around two parts per million.”
Persistent soil contamination
Contaminants that remain on the site may not have posed a public health risk while buried, but what if they end up making their way to the river?
A 2015 report obtained by Planet Detroit shows documents concentrations of heavy metals and other toxic substances that remain on the property. PM Environmental prepared this “Due Care” compliance plan for the property owner Erickson’s Inc in anticipation of their purchase of the property. These plans are required for owners of contaminated properties so that “contamination does not cause unacceptable exposures, and the contamination is not exacerbated or worsened,” according to the EGLE website.
Planet Detroit asked Drouillard to review the 2015 compliance plan. Drouillard’s examination found that numerous samples reported in the plan exceeded action levels for drinking water, groundwater, and aquatic life by orders of magnitude, based on Michigan clean up criteria. For example, a soil lead sample was 45.7 times higher than safe levels for drinking water levels and 12.8 times higher than action levels for groundwater. Other metals and a class of compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)–commonly found in coal and tar–were high as well.
“Several individual PAHs and metals are found at very high values,” Drouillard says. “The max copper and zinc soil concentrations are nearly 1200-fold and more than 800-fold respectively higher in some soil samples compared to groundwater protection action levels.”
The 2015 compliance plan also shows “values that exceed applicable criteria” for water and groundwater for several heavy metals from tests taken across the property. Because state regulations designed to protect human health are based on “volatilization and direct contact guidelines… from inhalation of indoor air in buildings over contaminated soil”, according to Drouillard, regulators consider the soil levels acceptable on site so long as they stay put.
But what if those chemicals were to move into the river? Drouillard noted that groundwater is present at around 8.5 feet, and its flow is “directed to the Detroit River.” He added that heavy metals are firmly bound to soil particles and thus unlikely to move into water easily. Yet, he said, the 2015 compliance plan shows metals were also present in groundwater.
Recent EPA testing also showed several heavy metals at the site, including lead and uranium in soil and water samples. “Only one—lead in a single soil sample—exceeded EPA removal management levels,” EGLE’s press release said. An EPA agency spokesperson contacted by Planet Detroit said the soil samples “show contamination of metals below levels that would endanger the public or require an EPA cleanup.” That data has not been released to the public.
Drouillard says the continued collapse of the site is a pressing concern as well. “These soil particles entering the water will transfer their metals to the Detroit River independent of leaching or groundwater,” Drouillard says.
Drouillard pointed out that the December EPA results were “presumably taken right at the point of the breach and … may be more representative of what was actually lost to the river than the soil samples further back from the shoreline in the 2015 compliance document. Since we don’t have that data, it could be that the values they observed were much lower than the [2015 compliance document].”
What is the threat to drinking water intakes?
EGLE and the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) have sought to reassure the public that there is no threat to the drinking water intake downstream from the spill that serves downriver communities. On December 11th, an EGLE press release said, “that contaminant levels were not detectable or well below water quality standards.” On January 16, GLWA issued a statement, saying definitively, “test results confirm that there was no impact to water quality from this incident.”
The GLWA water intake is across the river from the site, making it unlikely contamination would reach it, according to Drouillard. At the very least, he said the site “clearly presents a risk to the chemical contamination of the Detroit River both from soils entering the river and from groundwater.”
But while there is no evidence that pollutants entered drinking water intakes, it would be difficult to know if they had. That’s because the water residence time in the Detroit River is only 24 hours, while it took 10 days before the public even knew about the collapse. Drouillard along with University of Windsor colleagues Alice Grgicak-Mannion, John Hartig, Joel Gagnon, Chris Weisener, and Michael McKay wrote in a paper that “…Although the likelihood of particles entering drinking water intakes from this location is low, had there been hazards caused by the incident, they would not have been detected during water sampling owing to delays in monitoring.”
One possible tool for improving monitoring is an initiative called the Huron to Erie Corridor Monitoring Network has received funding to coordinate certain information for water intakes between Port Huron and Lake Erie. Rachael Barlock, a water resources engineer for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), said the system is designed to help water systems track possible issues as water moves from intake to intake.
“The equipment tracks pH, turbidity, temperature, dissolved oxygen and in some cases blue-green algae,” Barlock says. “The equipment tracks real-time data for these parameters, but not for PCBs, heavy metals, or the like.” So although turbidity measurements could potentially identify sediments, it’s still up to individual water systems to test for contaminants.
The incident could also serve as further motivation to clean up the Detroit River’s toxic sediment. The shoreline near Detroit Bulk Storage is one of nine areas targeted for cleanup by EGLE as part of the federal Great Lakes Area of Concern program. As the University of Windsor paper says, “This incident should be a call to action to accelerate sediment clean-up at all designated areas in the Detroit River.
“Sediments that were right adjacent to that site and a little bit upstream of that site have very high concentrations of PCBs and heavy metals as well,” Drouillard said. Two samples of the riverbed that Drouillard looked at near Zug Island as part of his research—just downstream from the collapse—had hazard scores of 300 and 500, where 50 indicates sediment that’s “potentially toxic” and anything greater than 100 is “likely toxic.” Further disturbances could kick up these sediments and send them downstream, he pointed out.
State Senator Stephanie Chang, who serves Senate District 1—which covers most of the Detroit River—suggested that a lack of funding for remediation could be one barrier for state agencies looking to take control of these sorts of incidents. “There have been significant staff cuts and significant funding cuts,” she says. “The folks in Southeast Michigan are now working on multiple sites.” Data provided by Chang’s office shows that money for the division is at its lowest level since 2011.
Chang says that she and other legislators are working on bills to prevent incidents like this from happening again. These include legislation concerning dock inspections and establishing a “state-wide database of contaminated sites along the waterways.” She is also working on a “notification bill” with State Senator Jeremy Moss from Madison Heights, who is currently dealing with that city’s “green ooze” problem.
Drouillard also identifies the lack of adequate emergency notification and response as a lesson that should be learned.
“One of the things that I thought was really disappointing about this process was essentially the notification process,” he says. “I don’t think that the drinking water intake was in any real threat, but there was not any procedure in place.”
Some question the wisdom of allowing a property owner–particularly one that was operating without a permit—to oversee their cleanup. “We’re going to ask the company that basically waited ten days even to tell us,” US. Representative Rashida Tlaib said at a public meeting last month. “To tell the property owners, ‘Remove limestone from the river.’ Do they have the money to do that? ‘Prevent erosion.’ We’re asking the company to do that?”