OPINION: New report on Detroit and Rouge River’s contaminated sediments urges creative financing, environmental justice

The window for leveraging federal funds to clean up the Detroit River ends in 4-5 years. Advocates call for urgency and new approaches.

Contaminated sediments on the U.S. side of the Detroit River and in the lower Rouge River continue to limit the ecological recovery of these ecosystems, including making fish unsafe for human consumption and degrading invertebrate communities living in the sediments. 

Last week, the State of the Strait Conference Steering Committee released a new report titled “The Contaminated Sediment Remediation Challenge: Complicated Problems that Require Interdisciplinary and Creative Solutions,” that calls for a sense of urgency in addressing this legacy pollution found in river sediments.

The State of the Strait is a joint Canada-U.S. effort that holds biennial meetings that bring together government managers, researchers, students, environmental/conservation groups and citizens to promote ecosystem-based management.

No additional sediment remediation is required on the Canadian side of the Detroit

River. However, up to 5.1 million cubic meters of contaminated sediments on the U.S. side have been targeted for remediation by state and federal governments. Scientists are still determining how much contaminated sediment in the lower Rouge River will require remediation. Both of these river systems are pollution hotspots or Great Lakes Areas of Concern designated under the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. 

“Contaminated sediments along the U.S. shoreline of the Detroit River and in the Lower Rouge River Mainstem are a substantial and pressing problem that will require the collaboration of many stakeholders,” noted Dr. Casey Godwin, Co-Chair of the State of the Strait Conference Steering Committee, co-author of the report, and research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Center for Cooperative Great Lakes Research. “All must work with a sense of urgency to leverage federal funding from the Great Lakes Legacy Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law while these funds exist.”

The good news is that the Great Lakes Legacy Act will provide 65% of the funding for this sediment remediation through federal dollars. However, local nonfederal partners must provide the 35% match funding. Local communities are unlikely to have any discretionary money to help meet these match requirements. 

The report proposes the following solutions to address that problem: 

Work with industry:

For example,  industries that likely contributed to this contamination could collaborate to help meet these match requirements, much like industries did through the Ashtabula River Partnership in Ashtabula, Ohio. 

However, some industries that likely contributed to these problems are no longer in existence, and it is difficult to determine just how much came from a particular industry. In Milwaukee, a coalition of partners has provided more than $155 million to meet the non-federal match requirement for contaminated sediment remediation.

Secure state funding:

Another option would be to secure state funding to help meet this match requirement. For example, the Minnesota State Bond program provided $25 million in the St. Louis River Area of Concern, and industrial partners provided $100 million to help make non-federal match requirements. The State of Michigan has its Renew Michigan Fund, designed to help fund environmental cleanup and redevelopment and administered by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, but it currently is not funded at an adequate level to make these necessary match requirements.

 The Renew Michigan fund recently contributed $1 million to clean up contaminated sediments and soils at the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park, which is under construction along the Detroit RiverWalk. The report recommends that the Renew Michigan Fund be funded adequately to help meet the non-federal match requirements or that the State of Michigan creates a similar mechanism to help meet non-federal match requirements. 

Pursue creative financing:

The report also points out that funding or fundraising is not the same thing as financing. Funding is getting government grants or loans towards a stated purpose but without expected financial returns or costs to the funded entity. In contrast, financing refers to a loan, bond, or other debt obligation or private equity investment in a project that needs to be repaid with an interest or other financial return and thus incurs a cost to the project. 

The report recommends that Detroit and Rouge River stakeholders pursue creative financing, including environmental, social, and governance investing, green and social impact bonds, and sustainability-linked investment opportunities to address contaminated sediment remediation and achieve associated social and economic benefits.

But time is of the essence. The report notes that the “window of opportunity” to receive federal funding for this needed contaminated sediment remediation through the Great Lakes Legacy Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is narrow – about 4-5 years. If this window of opportunity is missed, there is no guarantee that comparable federal money will be available.

Finally, the report notes that clean water and healthy ecosystems are basic human rights. Communities like Southwest Detroit, River Rouge, and Ecorse have been waiting for decades for consequential responses to long-standing issues of poor air quality, contaminated sediments, contamination associated with industrial brownfields, noise pollution from truck traffic, and water pollution inequity. 

The report argues that remediating contaminated sediments is not just an act of ecological restoration but also of restoring communities, economies, and cultures. 

“They should be viewed as restoring unique places, locations, and communities,” notes Jon W. Allan of the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability and co-author of the report. “They are restorative in terms of community, identity, place, and social fabric.”

The report recommends that environmental justice become a key priority in the process of remediating contaminated sediments in the Detroit and Rouge Rivers, including making sure that there is meaningful action and improvement in the ecosystem, community, and lives of underserved residents of Southwest Detroit, River Rouge, and Ecorse toward a more sustainable and just society. 

The full report is available online here.

Photo: Contaminated sediment remediation at the former Uniroyal site on the Detroit River (photo credit: Detroit Riverfront Conservancy).


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