Detroit River cleanup a low priority in Biden’s $1 billion Great Lakes windfall

Hopes were high in February for a long overdue acceleration of the cleanup of toxic sediment sites in the Detroit River that have languished since the peak industrial era of the 1950s. 

President Biden announced that his infrastructure bill would designate $1 billion specifically for remediation of the multiple Great Lakes region sites officially designated in 1987 as Areas of Concern. The Detroit River is one of the most polluted sites, is situated in the heart of the Great Lakes and has a high profile. 

Announcing Biden’s move, EPA said in a press release, “this (funding) will allow for a major acceleration of progress that will deliver significant environmental, economic, health, and recreational benefits for communities throughout the Great Lakes region.” 

In May, responding to a Planet Detroit inquiry on the potential availability of funds for the Detroit River from the $1 billion designated by Biden, EPA spokesperson Eileen Deamer said, “the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law does offer an opportunity for increased funding and flexibility for sediment remediation in AOCs.” 

But five months later, the EPA is taking a more nuanced approach toward the Detroit River, where it pegs the cost for contaminated sediments cleanup at $100 million.

EPA officials said it is more likely the agency will continue its approach of using Great Lakes Legacy Act funding for cleanups, a non-federal partner for approximately 35% of the cost, spokesperson Rachel Bassler recently told Planet Detroit.  

“Such partnerships will allow us to spread our Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding across as many AOC projects as possible,” Bassler said.   

EPA has previously acknowledged that the current approach slows the remediation process but said having local involvement offsets the extended timelines. 

Since 2010, when federal Great Lakes restoration funding first became available, only 13,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment has been remediated, the agency said in May. The Detroit River still contains over 6 million cubic yards of sediment, of which approximately 3.5 million cubic yards require remediation, according to the EPA. 

The ideal party to contribute funding to the cost of the cleanup is the responsible party, but in some cases, the entity may no longer exist. That means trying to secure funding from cash-strapped local or state governments that may or philanthropy.  

A significant project in the Upper Trenton Channel of the river that would remediate over 200,000 cubic yards of toxic sediment lacks the required non-federal sponsor, the EPA acknowledged.

“Potential impact to the (remediation) schedule is unknown. Evaluation of potential impacts will continue as we coordinate with stakeholders,” Bassler told Planet Detroit. 

A smaller project to remediate 30,000 cubic yards of sediment in 2022 at the Wilson Centennial Park site was also delayed and pushed back to 2023 while an amendment to the Great Lakes Legacy Act project agreement was finalized.

The Legacy Act is the congressionally authorized vehicle that funds contaminated sediment removal.

EPA’s Bassler said inflation could also threaten project timelines as it may require the agency to go back to non-federal sponsors for additional funding or reduce the scope of projects. Both of those options take time, Bassler said. 

The agency’s website estimates the removal of toxic sediment in the Detroit River will happen sometime between 2027 and 2030. 

Michigan defers to feds

Given the complexity of finding responsible parties and others to fund the non-federal requirement, the state of Michigan is a logical source. The Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy works closely with the EPA on AOC sediment remediation sites, including the Detroit River, but has been reluctant to contribute funding. 

In May, EGLE said it had budgeted $69 million for toxic site remediation, but it allocated no funding specifically for the Detroit River cleanup and was noncommittal on future financial commitments. 

Planet Detroit recently asked EGLE to update its position.

“EGLE does not have a position on Michigan’s status as a nonfederal funding partner, as that’s a question of policy and budgeting rather than statute or regulation. EGLE actively supports Detroit River remediation as part of its mission to protect the environment and public health and in line with its focus on environmental justice,” spokesperson Jeff Johnston said. 

Johnston later modified EGLE’s response, saying, “EGLE does sometimes lobby for budget priorities. Frankly, it’s too early in the process to determine where this would fit in EGLE’s FY 2023 priorities weighed against many other pressing needs and current unknowns,” Johnston said. 

While EGLE is noncommittal on funding to accelerate cleanup of the Detroit River’s contaminated sediment, a billion dollars in “shady as hell” funding was included in the FY 2023 budget for priorities of state legislators, the Detroit News reported this week. 

One of the projects provided $20 million for a “nature conservancy” in Ann Arbor connected to real estate developers, the News reported. 

A ‘compelling case’ for state funding

Speaking to Planet Detroit, former Michigan Office of the Great Lakes director Jon Allan expanded on the case he made in May for Michigan to become a financial partner in the restoration of the Detroit and Rouge rivers. 

Allan is currently a Senior Program Officer at the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability.

Calling on state agencies like EGLE, DNR, and economic development entities to work together, Allan said they could make a “compelling case” for funding to restore the river and other toxic legacy sites. He cited the benefits of community health and revitalization that derive from sediment remediation as justification for state investment.  

The DNR announced earlier this week that it will increase its focus on equity and will be engaging more communities of color “aimed at providing more opportunities for green space, recreation and environmental enhancement along Michigan waterways.” The DNR did not mention sediment remediation in the river. 

Allan also challenged the state to live up to its Great Lakes leadership responsibility. 

Michigan, as a Great Lakes state, “can’t truly claim its legacy and leadership until it financially invests and makes a major effort to restore the remaining toxic sites in its waterways. The Detroit River is one of them,” Allan said.

Our reporting 

runs deep.

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

Scroll to Top