Michigan executives renew call for accelerated fed, state clean up of toxic sediment in the Detroit River

Many Detroiters still view the Detroit River as a natural resource that’s too polluted to enjoy.
Aerial view of the Detroit Riverfront

When it comes to cleaning up the toxic pollution in the Detroit River remaining from the decades-ago peak industrial era, “the time is now,” Jon Allan recently told Planet Detroit.

Allan was the Office of the Great Lakes director in the administration of former Gov. Rick Snyder, and is now at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. 

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates, the toxic sediment, 3.5 million cubic yards “continues to weigh heavily on Detroit neighborhoods and people, the region, the state and the Great Lakes broadly,” Allan said. 

The Detroit River was identified as an Area of Concern in 1987, an official designation for dozens of Great Lakes locations containing legacy pollutants. Substantial federal funding for the remediation of the AOCs has been available since the advent of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative in 2010, 

Allan called for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the legislature, now controlled by Democrats, to pass budgets covering the state’s share of the clean-up cost, which is 35% of the total. The balance is the federal government’s responsibility and is administered by the EPA. The agency previously estimated the cost for the Detroit River at $100 million.

In January, Casey Godwin said, “all (parties) must work with a sense of urgency to leverage federal funding,” including from the Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Godwin is co-chair of the State of the Strait collaboration, a binational group focused on the Detroit River and a research scientist at the University of Michigan.   

Environmental law attorney Nick Leonard told Planet Detroit, “many Detroiters still view the Detroit River as a natural resource that’s too polluted to enjoy.” 

Leonard is executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and has been a vocal critic of Michigan on environmental justice issues like the Benton Harbor water crisis and air quality in Detroit, 

The city promotes the river, but to realize its desired vision, “remediation of it has to be accelerated,” Leonard said. 

Mixed message

Funding for clean up of the toxic sites in the Great Lakes region received a highly touted boost with the passage of President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in February 2022. It included $1 billion designated for legacy pollution sites like the Detroit River. 

In May 2022, the EPA told Planet Detroit that a provision of it allowed for flexibility in use of the funds that could expedite clean up of toxic sites in the Great Lakes. However, the Detroit River was not specifically mentioned. 

But in a September follow-up inquiry, EPA said it was likely that the agency would continue with the existing process that requires a non-federal sponsor, which EPA acknowledges is a slower process. 

Responding to a Planet Detroit inquiry, EPA spokesperson Eileen Deamer said that future Detroit River sediment remediation projects are “potentially eligible” for Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding.

Deamer pointed to current projects in the Detroit River as evidence of progress. Capping of 30,000 cubic yards of sediment near the R.C. Wilson Centennial Park is expected to be complete by late 2023. Capping a site does not remove the toxic sediment. It involves putting a layer of natural geologic materials or a liner on the site, followed by long-term monitoring of the cap’s integrity.  

A larger project to remove 400,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment will begin in 2025 or 2026.   

“The Detroit River Area of Concern was never ‘not given a priority’ for clean-up with Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding,” Deamer claimed.  

No change in policy 

Michigan’s Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) is the state’s lead agency that interfaces with EPA on Detroit River clean-up issues and spokesperson Jeff Johnston said, “there have been no changes in policy or priority from EGLE’s perspective since fall 2022,” when Planet Detroit last inquired. 

“The (Detroit) river remediation is one of many projects and efforts addressing various environmental justice issues in Michigan. Naturally, some are more pressing or directly impactful than others, and all compete for the same limited resources,” Johnston said. 

Johnston said that the federal funds that Michigan has received are not eligible for use on federal projects to fund the state’s 35% cost share of remediation of the Detroit River. 

In contrast, Gov. Whitmer’s proposed budget contains $64 million to support the modification of the Brandon Road Lock in Illinois, a $1.1 billion dollar U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project to reduce the risk of invasive carp entering the Great Lakes. Except for Illinois, no other Great Lake state is contributing funding.

Measuring progress  

The yardstick that measures progress that can eventually lead to a site like the Detroit River’s removal from the 1987 list of toxic sites is the remediation of Beneficial Use Impairments, BUI’s. 

BUI’s are “a change in the chemical, physical or biological integrity of the Great Lakes system sufficient to cause significant environmental degradation.”

There are 14 BUIs used to measure the degradation of sites like the Detroit River, and all must be removed before a site can be considered restored. They include restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption, fish tumors, restrictions on drinking water consumption, and beach closings.  

Michigan’s EGLE tracks the status of BUI removal at the state’s 14 Area of Concern sites and of the 11 original BUI’s for the Detroit River, 9 remain. For the Rouge River, all 9 of the original 9 BUIs remain unremediated. 

In contrast, non-urban sites like Muskegon Lake and White Lake in western Michigan and the Menominee and Manistique Rivers have had all or a large majority of their BUI’s removed.

EGLE spokesperson Johnston said tracking BUI removal on a graph is only a small part of the story. “All of Michigan’s AOCs are progressing significantly, taking full advantage of the (federal) Great Lakes funding that we have had over 10 years now.”   

The Detroit River is an example where significant progress has been made but not to the point where the BUIs can be removed, Johnston said, citing the complexity of remediating contaminated sediment. 

But veteran Detroit River expert John Hartig is less optimistic.

Michigan faces “enormous challenges” dealing with contaminated sediment on the U.S. side of the Detroit River, Hartig wrote in a Great Lakes Now column in May.  

A Downriver resident, Hartig is a visiting scholar at the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research.  

Hartig cited Minnesota as a proactive example of a Great Lake state that uses its funds to expedite the remediation of contaminated Areas of Concern. Similar mechanisms in Michigan that could speed up remediation of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers have not been “adequately funded,” according to Hartig.

Post deadline, Planet Detroit received a copy of a letter sent to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and legislative leaders requesting that the state provide funding to support the non-federal requirement needed to receive federal funds. The letter was signed by municipalities, environmental non-for-profits, individuals and other interested parties, with a total of 61 signatures for the request for state action. 


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