Biden funding infusion launches decades overdue clean up of toxic Detroit River

EPA targets 2030 cleanup; advocates say that’s ‘ambitious’

Has the time finally come to clean up the toxic sediment in the Detroit River that remains as legacy pollutants from the peak industrial era? 

That’s approximately 3.5 million cubic yards of sediment, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A successful cleanup could lead to the river’s removal from a 1987 list of toxic sites in the Great Lakes region designated Areas of Concern.

Infused with $1 billion from his infrastructure bill, President Joe Biden says the time is now. The EPA has set a goal to remove the sediment by 2030, which can eventually pave the way for removing the river from the 1987 list.

Biden recently traveled to Ohio to formally announce the funding for clean up of the toxic sites that dot the Great Lakes. “For decades, there was a lot of talk, a lot of plans, but very little progress. It was slow. That changes today,” Biden said. 

EPA Administrator Michael Regan called the cash infusion for the Great Lakes a “game-changer,” 

In a statement following the announcement, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said, “we are thankful that Congress appropriated additional funds to Great Lakes restoration last year that will positively impact the Detroit River watershed.” 

Between 2010 and 2021. the Great Lakes region has received approximately $3.8 billion in federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funding, according to the EPA’s website.

Of that, approximately $75 million has gone to the Detroit River for 30 projects ranging from $18,000 to $20.1 million, according to EPA’s restoration database.   

Not mentioned in Biden’s announcement was the web of bureaucratic hurdles that come with federal money –  like securing significant state or local match funds and finding and getting cooperation from parties responsible for the original pollution. 

Planet Detroit asked EPA how it could make the 2030 goal given the current bureaucratic obstacles.

“We are confident that the roadmap for work on AOCs just laid out by the Administration is achievable with all the usual caveats that the AOC world can be unpredictable and present unexpected challenges,” spokesperson Taylor Gillespie said. 

Gillespie said the new infrastructure funding includes flexibility that bolsters the agency’s confidence in its ability to meet the deadline. 

EPA estimates the cost to clean up the remaining AOCs at $2 billion, with $100 million or more for the Detroit River. 

Planet Detroit canvassed key constituencies and experts to comment on how a Detroit River cleanup may advance. We asked what are the remaining barriers, and how environmental justice might be included in the mix, the Biden administration pledged. 

Detroit Mayor Duggan’s office emphasized collaboration with the state. 

“Over the last two decades, the City of Detroit has worked with our federal and state partners on clean-up efforts in the Detroit River,” Mayor Duggan spokesperson Brian Peckinpaugh said in an email, citing the transformation of the riverfront. 

“Yes, more work can be done, and we will support the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy (EGLE), which has the regulatory authority over the waterway, to identify the areas of concern,” he said. 

Peckinpaugh did not address the issues of securing local funding and environmental justice. 

EGLE spokesperson Jeff Johnston said the agency is committed to working with EPA to meet the 2030 goal for cleanup of the river, which he characterized as “ambitious.”

Recently, EGLE AOC manager Rick Horbola told reporters that the 2030 goal is “highly optimistic.” Johnston said the agency would have a better idea in a year or two on whether or not it can achieve the 2030 goal. 

Johnston also said a Michigan fund to support toxic site cleanup like the AOCs is depleted and has not been replenished. That could impact the state’s ability to muster required local match dollars. He added that EGLE has access to Great Lakes restoration funding and has tapped it to do remedial investigation in the Rouge River. 

‘Ambitious’ goal

A key component in AOC cleanup since funding became available in 2010 has been the work of local groups like Friends of the Detroit River and Friends of the Rouge. The Rouge is also one of the sites on the 1987 list targeted for cleanup by 2030.

Detroit Riverkeeper Bob Burns echoed EGLE’s sentiments that the 2030 goal is “ambitious,” but said, “we are committed to doing the work right, however long it takes, to help rehabilitate and remediate the Detroit River.”

According to the Friends of the Detroit River Executive Director Tricia Blicharski, a recently completed sediment characterization indicated where additional sediment cleanups may be targeted. 

“Each sediment cleanup typically takes years to identify, plan, permit and implement. Public input and non-federal sponsors are vital pieces of the process, and they take time too,” Blicharski said.  

Riverkeeper Burns acknowledged the environmental justice issue in Detroit, River Rouge, and Ecorse.  “All southeast Michigan residents should have access to clean, pollution-free water for fishing, recreation, and transport,” Burns said. 

Friends of the Rouge Executive Director Marie McCormick acknowledged the complexity of the current AOC remediation process and is hopeful that provisions of the funds from the infrastructure bill will strive to address legacy pollution in urbanized and historically under-resourced areas. 

“We cannot fully clean up our hometown river unless we strive to focus on the most complex and costly areas of the Rouge to clean up,” McCormick said.  

Both Friends of the Detroit River and Friends of the Rouge have received GLRI funding.   

Community engagement and pork-barrel projects

University of Detroit Mercy’s Nick Schroeck, an environmental law attorney and urban policy expert, said it would be crucial for the clean-up agencies to do good community outreach. That includes proper prior notice of the project, work scope, and potential impacts. 

He noted the popularity of fishing along the Detroit River and said it’s critical to have “clear communication about safety issues related to fish consumption before, during, and after these projects.”

Another area Schroeck said warrants attention is the disposal of the contaminated sediment when removed from the river. “It should not be the responsibility of environmental justice communities today to deal with contaminated sediment that in some instances was created over 100 years ago,” he said. 

Schroeck also called for people in communities affected by environmental justice near the project sites to be given hiring priority for restoration-related jobs. 

While the recent Biden administration action has put a spotlight on cleaning up the toxic sediment sites, the scope of the restoration program since 2010 is broad and lists over 6,000 projects. Some experts question whether some of these projects should be categorized as restoration.

In 2014, $231,000 was allocated to phragmites eradication on Chicago’s Bishop Ford Freeway. And the Village of Wilmette on Chicago’s affluent North Shore received $8,000 to plant trees to deal with nearshore pollution.

Since its inception, veteran Great Lakes policy expert Dave Dempsey has followed the restoration program. In 2018, Dempsey said, “the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has done a lot of good, but it’s also our regional pork barrel.” A complete list of Great Lakes restoration projects is at  


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