May 23, 2014 at 10:09 am

Southwest Detroit tree-planting plan fuels toxic relationship

A Greening of Detroit worker in a biohazard suit prepares to plant trees expected to eventually reduce ground pollution. (Photos by David Coates / The Detroit News)

The condition of an abandoned and contaminated southwest-side park owned by Detroit Public Schools forced long-simmering anger among nearby residents to the surface this week.

Bridgeview Park, in the shadow of the Marathon Oil refinery and Interstate 75, is a full city block of grass that sits open to the surrounding community. This worries some residents because park soils are contaminated with chemicals like arsenic and lead.

The frustration was inadvertently kicked up a notch when men in biohazard suits appeared on the site, preparing to plant trees for Greening of Detroit. The nonprofit is using money from a Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant to plant at several locations around Detroit — trees that are expected to eventually pull contamination from the ground.

On Monday, a dozen neighborhood residents met with Greening of Detroit officials at the park to voice their frustrations. Among the concerns are potential health threats caused by digging up contaminated soils, increases in the local rodent population and their lack of input on the project.

“This is unconscionable — against humanity,” said resident Emma Lockridge. “I say you’re doing this only because we’re black people. You would never go into Ferndale and do this. You would never go into Southfield and do this, go into a Birmingham playground and just start digging and treating people like guinea pigs.”

Greening of Detroit’s Dean Hay explained how dendroremediation — the planting of trees and plants to remove contamination — eventually would benefit the community. The organization is doing its best to address the situation with the limited grant money it has received, Hay said.

Greening of Detroit officials conducted their own soil testing in recent weeks that confirmed residents’ belief that the property is contaminated.

“That’s why we haven’t used this field in 10 years — because they said it was contaminated,” said resident Sharon Moore. “So if you’re uprooting or whatever you’re doing, it has an impact on us.”

Several residents admitted their anger stemmed less from the nonprofit’s intentions than their frustration with the property’s owner, DPS.

A school district spokeswoman did not directly address the property’s contamination but said Thursday the district “previously secured the property with fencing to prevent trespassing.”

DPS is allowing Greening of Detroit on the property for the tree planting and is negotiating a possible lease of up to 10 years for the nonprofit, Jennifer Mrozowski said.

“Based on residents’ concerns, we have asked Greening of Detroit to resecure the fence and place a sign on the property to inform neighbors of the project,” she said.

DEQ not notified

Officials with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality said they were unaware the Bridgeview Park site had contamination issues because land owners aren’t always required to notify the state of certain pollution issues. But when owners are made aware of a contamination problem, they are obligated to take action to protect the public, a department official said.

“You don’t just put up a fence and say ‘I’m done here,’ ” said Gerald Tiernan, an acting district supervisor with the DEQ. “If they know a property is contaminated, they can’t just walk away.”

Prior to becoming Bridgeview Park, the property was home to Jeffries Elementary School. The school was torn down in 1991.

The abandoned lot became filled with debris and waist-high grass. A Riverview utility man spearheaded an effort to clean up the area — backed with financial contributions from Michigan Consolidated Gas and some small businesses — and opened Bridgeview Park in 1994.

At the time, Detroit school board President April Howard touted the transformation as a model for other communities.

“There’s probably a patch of field somewhere within walking distance of every household in the city,” Howard said. “I’m sure that every parent and every member of every block club could take the initiative to turn a rundown piece of property into a usable recreational asset for children in the area.”

At one time, a fence closed off the property, but most of the metal was taken down years ago by scrapper, residents say. The theft and the general poor state of the property — contamination included — has been a source of lingering frustration among locals.

'Not appropriate' for park

In 2007, the AKT Peerless environmental consulting firm assessed Bridgeview Park for the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority and found traces of potentially harmful chemicals including arsenic, lead and benzopyrene.

The AKT Peerless report stated:

■“... It is possible that contamination is present across the whole site. ... It is likely the contamination was brought to the site with imported fill soil after the demolition of the former school.”

■“... Short-term or long-term use of the site as a park in its current state is not appropriate because of potential exposures through the direct contact pathway.”

■“If DPS chooses to reopen the site to the public, appropriate remedial action should be conducted to protect future site occupants against exposure. ... Installation of an engineered barrier (cap) across the site would be an appropriate remedial action.”

Some residents, aware of the contamination for years, have chosen to give the park a wide berth. Others have used the park anyway. Over the years, residents said children have played in the fields, families have used the barbecue grills on site for gatherings and some locals have even planted gardens there.

“DPS has known about this field for 10 years — that it’s contaminated...,” Lockridge said. “They put a fence around it but they never sent out notices to the people around here to explain the level of contamination. ... Why would they knowingly give a contaminated field to a community group?”
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From left, Dean Hay and Erin Quetell of Greening of Detroit talk to ... (David Coates / The Detroit News)
In 2007, AKT Peerless environmental consultants found potentially toxic ... (David Coates / The Detroit News)