How did a provision to allow hazardous materials across the Ambassador Bridge end up in a COVID relief bill?

Update: On December 29, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer passed the COVID relief bill, but issued a line-item veto for the measure to allow hazardous materials on the Ambassador Bridge. Whitmer was able to issue the veto on account of a line-item reduction in appropriations for the Michigan Department of Transportation, even though no funding was attached to the hazardous materials provision.

In November, two trucks — one of them carrying 110 pounds of potassium hydroxide and 400 gallons of diesel fuel — collided on the Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River, sparking a fire that reached 1,500 degrees and shut down traffic for months in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. This bridge carries interstates 71 and 75 over the Ohio River and its closure caused weeks of backups that reached more than 15 miles into Kentucky. Luckily, no one was killed in this crash–which happened in the middle of the night–but it’s a reminder of what’s at stake when hazardous materials combust on an aging bridge.

And it’s a reminder that Michigan might need as Republican leaders in the state legislature have added a provision allowing for HAZMAT or hazardous materials on the Ambassador Bridge as part of a $465 million COVID relief bill. This passed the Michigan Legislature and now awaits Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s signature.

Specifically, it would allow for class 3 flammable liquids and class 8 corrosive substances, like the potassium hydroxide on the Brent Spence Bridge. Currently, hazardous materials crossing the border have to go by way of the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron or the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry. 

Although the provision seems likely to be struck down by Gov. Whitmer, it marks the latest move in a battle for health and safety that has pitted the heavily working-class and Latinx population living near the bridge against the Ambassador Bridge’s operator — the Detroit International Bridge Company — owned by the billionaire Moroun family.

For the bridge company, the provision may represent one of its last chances to capitalize on its highly profitable, privately owned border crossing before the opening of the publicly controlled Gordie Howe Bridge a few miles to the south in 2024. 

Straight out of the Simpsons?

“A billionaire who is literally trying to increase his profits by moving hazardous materials, you can’t get any more Mr. Burns-like than this scenario,” Steve Tobocman, a resident of Southwest Detroit and former Democratic Floor Leader in the Michigan House of Representatives, told Planet Detroit, adding that for decades, efforts by residents to protect their neighborhood have amounted to “essentially fighting against [the Mouroun’s] money”.

“We’re so burdened and we’re so in need of legislation that addresses COVID,” said Gloria Rivera, who lives within a mile of the Ambassador Bridge. She noted the numerous environmental threats she has had to deal with in her neighborhood like pollution from the Marathon refinery and AK Steel as well as the outsize impact of COVID-19 in the community. 

The diesel emissions from the 13,000 trucks that use the bridge daily could also be exacerbating the spread of the virus and causing other conditions like lung cancer and asthma that increase the risk of becoming very sick from COVID. “That’s disrespectful of a community that is already sufficiently burdened by COVID,” Rivera said of the inclusion of the HAZMAT measure in a bill that also contains much-needed funding for things like vaccine distribution.

The move is also perhaps unsurprising. Although Matthew Moroun–son of Manuel “Matty” Moroun and vice chairman of the Detroit International Bridge Company–has tried to portray himself in local media as being more “civic-minded” than his combative father, the company has funneled significant amounts of money to lawmakers in an effort to allow hazardous materials on the bridge.

They’ve done this in spite of a petition signed by more than 400 residents aimed at blocking the move as well as the decision by former Republican Governor Rick Snyder not to allow it. Bridge company Vice President Kevin Kalczynski has argued that it’s unfair not to allow for HAZMAT transport on the Ambassador as is done on other bridges. “We should have the right to offer the same services,” he said.

Yet, the Ambassador Bridge might seem an especially poor choice for transporting hazardous materials. It’s 91 years old and, unlike structures such as the Blue Water Bridge, doesn’t segregate passenger vehicles from cargo traffic. It also passes through one of Detroit’s most populated areas. After seeing the provision, State Sen. Stephanie Chang delivered an impassioned floor speech to draw attention to the 40% of residents living near the bridge who are children, and possible threats to drinking water intakes on the Detroit River from an incident on the bridge.

The COVID relief bill refers to a 2012 Michigan Department of Transportation MDOT report endorsing HAZMAT transport on the Ambassador Bridge. Chang stressed that this came in the middle of a process and was never adopted by MDOT. But even this report said the Ambassador Bridge is vulnerable to explosive materials, saying that “as a result of limited escape paths, in the event of a hazmat incident…many vehicle occupants might be trapped and possibly not survive.” Such an incident could also shut down traffic and shipping at the country’s busiest land border crossing, in addition to jeopardizing a neighborhood with a number of parks, schools, and churches.

“We’ve been here before,” Michelle Martinez, executive director for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, told Planet Detroit. Residents brought up concerns about hazardous materials during debates over the bridge company’s proposal to build a second replacement bridge next to the current one.

“If industry has already been getting these materials through other pathways, other areas that are not automatically putting residents at risk. Why change now?” she asked.

A ‘mystery’

Who exactly put the HAZMAT provision in the COVID relief bill is a mystery. However, Republican leadership almost certainly signed off on it and there is no shortage of lawmakers receiving money from the bridge company or its executives, including Detroit Democrats Wendell Byrd and Tyrone Carter. But no one has been eager to take responsibility for the measure.

“Sometimes [provisions are] done in the dark of night without a committee hearing or proper vetting of the idea because they recognize it’s bad politics and it may even be bad policy,” Tobocman said. Chang stressed that the COVID relief bill didn’t go through the normal legislative process and that some legislators only had access to it for a few hours before they had to vote on it.

Others have pointed out that Whitmer can’t issue a line-item veto on an unfunded provision like this. However, Chang said that multiple pathways are available to override the HAZMAT measure, including declaring it unenforceable.

Republican leadership may be hoping the provision somehow passes and then gets approved by a sympathetic Trump administration on its way out. Tobocman referred to this as “regulatory clemency” or overriding normal regulatory practice to help out political supporters. And it wouldn’t be the first time the bridge company has sought help from Trump, having previously targeted him with an ad on Fox News that asked him to revoke the permit for the Gordie Howe Bridge.    

Still, it’s possible that this might be the last gasp for the bridge company as the public Gordie Howe bridge moves onto its turf. 

“I don’t know how long this kind of private monopoly is going to stay once we get a public crossing that is more modernized,” Tobocman said. Chang noted that the new bridge will be able to safely handle hazardous materials and that as a publicly owned entity it will be “much more transparent and accountable”.

But regardless of the outcome on the hazardous materials measure, residents may feel exhausted by this latest threat to public health or what Rivera referred to as, “industry not really being for the community, it’s more industry being for itself.”

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