Detroit River cleanup: Federal funding ready but bureaucracy, lack of state financial investment remain barriers to progress

Experts call on Michigan to provide financial support: ‘The state has a responsibility to make sure it is cleaned up.’

Federal funding from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill that will jump-start the long-awaited remediation of toxic sediment in the Detroit River is set to flow. Now the hard work begins to find corporations and other interested parties who will contribute financially. 

That was the underlying theme at a recent biennial conference that focuses on the health of the Detroit River, and the status of cleanup of longstanding toxic pollution remaining from the peak industrial era. 

Toxic pollutants that line the near-shore areas include PCBs, metals, oils, greases and high levels of bacteria, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website for the Detroit River. 

Funding to remediate the sediment is estimated to be $100 million, according to the EPA. But in order to secure the funding, a local financial commitment is required for up to 35% of the cost of the project.   

The EPA is looking for many kinds of partners to make cleanup of the river feasible according to Casey Godwin, a University of Michigan scientist and conference co-chair.

The non-federal contribution “can come from a range of entities, including businesses that may or may not have a liability, nonprofits, and state and local governments,” Godwin told Planet Detroit in a post-conference email.  

In a perfect world, the party responsible for the pollution would pay for the cleanup, but many no longer exist and even if they did, securing the funding from them could require costly, years-long litigation with uncertain outcomes. 

John Hartig, who co-chaired the conference with Godwin, told Planet Detroit that securing the local funding needs a sense of urgency.

“These federal funds will not be there forever, and we need to respond to EPA’s “call to action” and take full advantage of the historic funding opportunity, ” said Hartig, a Downriver resident and visiting scholar at the University of Windsor.  

EPA spokesperson Eileen Deamer told Planet Detroit that the infrastructure law does provide for some flexibility for sediment remediation in Areas of Concern like the Detroit River. Deamer did not provide details and said the Great Lakes Legacy Act, which is the legislative vehicle for sediment remediation and contains the requirement for a non-federal sponsor, has not been revised since 2008.

That’s two years prior to the availability of federal restoration funding which began in 2010. 

The EPA now estimates the maximum amount of potentially contaminated sediment is 6.7 million cubic yards, according to Deamer. But the agency believes the amount that will require remediation is approximately 3.5 million cubic yards. 

The Harbortown shoreline areas of the river contain approximately 1.6 million cubic yards of sediment, based on EPA data provided at the conference. The River Rouge and Ecorse shorelines have a combined 2.2 million cubic yards, and further downriver, the mid-lower Trenton Channel contains 1.79 million cubic yards of sediment. 

Deamer cautions that the numbers on the sediment will be refined as more is known. 

Where’s Michigan?   

Jon Allan, echoed calls for diverse financial participation to clean up the Detroit River and “that certainly means corporations and businesses too”, said Allan, a former director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes where he was involved with Great Lakes restoration. Allan is now at the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability.

Allan called on the state to become a financial partner in restoring the Detroit and Rouge rivers. Michigan and the nation benefited from the industrial output that led to the pollution that still plagues the rivers, Allan said. 

“Remember, the state money is a key part of the consideration for a non-federal match,” Allan said. “So every dollar the state invests in the restoration of the community is matched by two additional federal dollars under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. What better way for the state to lean in here?” 

Allan also referenced environmental justice as an issue relevant to cleaning up the river. 

“This is a process of sediment restoration, but it is also occurring in a community with a long history and legacy of environmental, health and social harm,” Allan said.

A focus on environmental justice is a stated priority for Biden and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. But after Whitmer put a spotlight on the issue early in her term in office, she has struggled to produce results, as highlighted by the Benton Harbor water crisis. 

On Whitmer’s record, Detroit environmental law attorney Nick Leonard previously said that Whitmer has focused on procedural and administrative issues. But she has failed to deliver “changed realities in environmental justice communities.” 

Hartig too supports funding participation from the state, saying, “it could, once again, be part of the solution to cleaning up contaminated sediments in the Rouge and Detroit rivers.” 

Michigan has $69.3 million in its budget for clean up of legacy toxic sites that is already allocated to projects under a program to renew the state’s environment, according to Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) spokesperson Jeff Johnston. The current influx of federal funding Michigan has received cannot be used toward the 35% match required for Detroit River cleanup projects, Johnston said. 

Planet Detroit asked James Clift, EGLE’s deputy director, if Michigan should make  financial investments, in addition to the staff support it provides, to advance the Detroit River’s restoration. 

Clift said as funding is directed, “EGLE must consider the breadth of needs, the greatest risks to the health of Michigan residents, and the processes and partners involved in remediation.” 

He said “the Detroit River is a vital and iconic Michigan waterway” and referenced  technical support EGLE has provided to the EPA in the past ten years in support of the river. 

Clift did not address whether Michigan should commit funding that would speed up the removal of toxic sediment from the river.   

A bond fund that could supply state funding for the Detroit River and other Areas of Concern toxic sites was depleted and not renewed. 

The EPA’s Great Lakes office announced last week it is providing $100 million for a restoration cleanup in portions of the St. Louis River AOC near Duluth. The state of Minnesota will contribute $5.8 million, spokesperson Macy Pressley told Planet Detroit. 

An undisclosed portion of the funding will come from federal infrastructure funding, according to the press release.   

Veteran policy adviser and Great Lakes author Dave Dempsey has written extensively about the Detroit River and he told Planet Detroit that “Michigan has no choice but to kick in the non-federal match money.”

“The Detroit River is one of Michigan’s showcases,” Dempsey said. “The state has a responsibility to make sure it is cleaned up.” 

Dempsey said the river is valued by the people of Detroit and southeast Michigan, and a state failure to fund a cleanup sends the message that the Detroit River doesn’t matter. 

The conference was held at the University of Michigan’s Dearborn campus where Chancellor Domenico Grasso made opening remarks that asked participants to “look at how we value ecosystems.”

“We use ecological systems and services, but we don’t pay for them,” Grasso said.


Our reporting 

runs deep.

Get the latest local enviro news in your inbox with Planet Detroit.

Scroll to Top