Morouns using riverfront concrete operation to force land transfer

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A Moroun-owned concrete company’s request for a permit to store materials and crush concrete on the Detroit riverfront between Detroit’s Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park and Riverside Park is raising concerns about pollution, dust, and truck traffic for residents and park-goers. But a Moroun spokesperson said the real issue is a land transfer that’s been delayed since 2015.

More than 130 residents, community groups and environmental advocates from across the city signed a letter organized by nonprofit advocacy group Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, asking the city not to issue what they termed a “permanent permit” and instead help the company select a more suitable place for the operation. The letter said the site between two major parks and next to the city’s widely praised RiverWalk was an “inappropriate location for such an intense, abrasive, dusty & toxic operation.”

The permit application raises questions about the city’s plans for the riverfront and how it intends to protect residents and park users from polluting industries. 

But it also marks the latest episode in the billionaire Moroun family’s efforts to get the land needed to build a second span for the Ambassador Bridge and perhaps force the sale of the Port of Detroit to the Morouns. 

Esther Jentzen, a spokesperson for the Moroun-owned Central Transport, told Planet Detroit by email that the delay in finalizing a 2015 Land Exchange Agreement “is the most important part of this story.” The deal, which still requires approval from the City Council, would sell the Detroit International Bridge Company the property it needs to build a second span for the Ambassador Bridge. 

Jentzen said that closing the deal is necessary for the DIBC to consider granting an easement for the RiverWalk to connect Centennial Park with Riverside Park and to move industrial uses, including its existing concrete operation, west of the Ambassador Bridge.

But if the city’s Buildings, Safety, Engineering and Environmental Department approves the permit, it could give the bridge company additional leverage to push through the land exchange because otherwise, the city would be dealing with a nuisance right next to Centennial Park, one of its most-anticipated new public amenities. 

“There’s no real, practical reason why they need to be on the river,” said Phil Clark, a Hubbard Farms resident. He argued that Hercules Concrete’s request to continue operating at the site did not represent the best use of the land. According to City of Detroit Spokesperson John Roach, Hercules has held temporary permits and is currently operating without a permit with “the understanding” that the city will issue a permanent permit. Clark said protecting visitors at Centennial and Riverside parks should be a “higher priority.”

Clark also expressed concern that the site could suffer the same fate as the Revere Dock, where shoreline collapses in 2019 and 2021 spilled contaminated material into the Detroit River, raising concerns for downstream drinking water intakes.

Hercules has its own troubled history. In 2021, Planet Detroit reported that the company was storing large piles of material close to the shoreline, raising concerns about the site that private engineering firm KS Associates said “appears to be similar to what collapsed at the Revere site.”

Conrad Mallett, corporation counsel for the city of Detroit, suggested city leadership supports the permit approval. 

“The city of Detroit is very respectful (of) the fact that Hercules cement has ownership of the site. The business they operate is both legal and properly zoned for M4 (intensive industrial),” he told Planet Detroit via text message.

If the 2015 land transfer was approved, and the DIBC agreed to move its concrete operation west of the Ambassador Bridge, it’s unclear where exactly it would end up. The bridge company has been trying to acquire the Port of Detroit property off Scotten Street, next to Riverside Park. The Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority has agreed to the deal, but the City Council still needs to approve the move.

Gregg Ward, president of the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, suggested the bridge company might try to place the concrete operation at the port site if the deal goes through, where pollution could still be a problem for Riverside Park and parts of Southwest Detroit. 

Ward added that granting Hercules the permit at its current location was “indefensible, from a public policy and environmental perspective,” and would give the bridge company additional leverage to finalize the port sale. Mallett and Jentzen declined to say if the port site was being considered for the concrete operation. And Mark Schrupp, executive director for the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, did not respond to requests for comment. 

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, expressed frustration with the ongoing presence of a concrete operation on the riverfront.

“We should be moving towards a riverfront where people can enjoy our waterways and not have to worry about their health and quality of life,” she said. “This type of movement on Hercules seems to be going backward.”

In addition to blocking, at least temporarily, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy’s plan to run the Detroit RiverWalk from the Ambassador Bridge to Belle Isle’s MacArthur Bridge, approving the Hercules permit could create several hazards for park users. For example, the entrance to the facility where trucks will be entering and exiting is also right next to one of the main access points to Centennial Park and the RiverWalk.

“If you sit there for a few minutes and watch the trucks exit, you’ll see all the dust being kicked up because they don’t have any tire-washing or measures to keep the dust down,” said Raquel Garcia, executive director for SDEV. She also wondered how the city was planning to enforce its fugitive dust ordinance with the facility’s large, uncovered piles of material.

“I think the question is really to the city. We need to say, ‘what’s your plan for the riverfront?’” Garcia said. “Why would they even say yes? They should be negotiating to purchase that property.”

Mallett said concerns about dust will be reflected in whatever permit is issued, and the size of the piles will have to conform to the fugitive dust ordinance and “River Protection Ordinance,” which requires materials to be stored 150 feet from the shore, among other restrictions. 

“We share Hercules’ desires, which coincide directly with the community’s desire to maximize the riverfront aesthetic values,” Mallett said. 

The Hercules proposal comes at the same time as residents of the Core City neighborhood are speaking out against a potential concrete crushing operation there that they fear could bring more truck traffic, dust and noise to the area. 

Crushing concrete can send asbestos embedded in construction materials into the air.

Exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing lung cancer or mesothelioma. It can emit crystalline silica, associated with lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease, and silicosis, an incurable lung disease that can cause severe illness and death.
Garcia notes that the area west of Hercules is “really dark burgundy” on the Michigan environmental justice screening tool, indicating significant pollution and a population with high levels of underlying health problems that make them especially vulnerable. And the city at large was just identified as the nation’s number one “asthma capital” by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America — more Detroiters get sick with asthma than anywhere else in Michigan  .

Screenshot of  MI EJScreen in southwest Detroit Dec. 6, 2022.

“I think it’s time for Detroit to re-envision what belongs here and doesn’t belong here,” she said.

Chang said lawmakers should pass laws ensuring distance requirements between residential areas and facilities like Hercules at the state and municipal levels.

Even if residents fail to block the permit, Chang says it’s significant that so many individuals and organizations from across the city signed onto SDEV’s letter.

“It is telling that so many community organizations, not just in Southwest but across the whole city, signed on to this letter,” she said. “Hopefully, we’re starting to see more groups connecting.”


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