Duggan defends 'vigorous' demolition practices amid soil concerns

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Mayor Mike Duggan addresses the media on Wednesday in Detroit.

Detroit — Mayor Mike Duggan on Wednesday defended the "vigorous" practices of the city's demolition program in the wake of concerns over whether some of the dirt used to fill holes might have been contaminated.

Duggan's defense comes after a federal watchdog agency issued a new round of subpoenas last month to certain demolition contractors as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into the city's federally funded blight elimination work. 

"No city agency has been subpoenaed over the dirt because the city agencies have been vigorous from day one," Duggan told The Detroit News. "We have cooperated with every single investigation, and we feel very good about where the program stands today."

The City Council's second in command, Mary Sheffield, put out a call Tuesday to have the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee convene a congressional hearing, citing a Detroit Free Press report that raised the possibility that dirt being used to fill holes under the program may have been from contaminated or unverified sources, including soils from the recent reconstruction of Interstate 96 in western Wayne County. 

Sheffield argues that transparency is lacking in the program that's been the subject of multiple local, state and federal reviews since fall 2015 after concerns were raised over bidding practices and soaring costs.

The Detroit Land Bank Authority oversees the blight elimination effort along with the Detroit Building Authority. Nearly 17,000 blighted homes have been demolished under the program since May 2014.

Sheffield said she worries there are not enough controls in place to properly monitor the soil used in the program. But Duggan said the claim is political and the building authority banned the use of dirt from the I-96 project. 

A letter sent to U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, and Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, from Sheffield notes the program has been "mired in controversy since its inception" and it's led to "anxiety, uncertainty, and a lack of transparency for the community."

Tlaib in response said she and her team take the request "very seriously" and "it's critical that we ensure the public's trust."

Lawrence said credible proof that demolition sites have used contaminated soil "must be addressed at all levels of government."

"Detroiters deserve to know that their public heath and safety are at the forefront of ongoing work in their communities," she said in a statement. "Anything less is unacceptable." 

Lawrence said she'll continue to reach out to local, state and federal officials to "make sure that concerns raised by the citizens of Detroit are properly addressed.” 

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in a statement late Wednesday said it's "working with the federal agencies investigating the city's demolition program."

The DEQ notes that the state's Environmental Remediation law sets criteria for the relocation of soil. Contaminated soil cannot be relocated to uncontaminated sites. 

Brian Farkas, director of special projects for the building authority, has said contractors must perform sampling and analysis of materials that come from sources that may exceed state criteria for residential use.

Sampling results, he said, influenced the building authority's decision to prohibit the use of soils from certain projects, including the I-96 construction project.

"I-96 dirt was categorically barred at the outset as a source of dirt for the city’s residential demolition program," Farkas said. "Every contractor was made aware of that and have had to submit documentation verifying the source of the fill material they use on every demolition."

The DEQ reviewed that data and noted that it appears "these soils were contaminated with salt from road deicing."

"DEQ previously advised parties involved in the demolition project not to utilize soil containing these salts," a DEQ statement reads. "The salt concentrations in the soil did exceed the residential soil criteria and this would be a concern in areas where people drink well water, but because the area is served by city water, there was not drinking water concern."

Sheffield on Wednesday noted the DEQ's confirmation that dirt from the I-96 project was contaminated and "there's a possibility that this has been used throughout Detroit."

"If there is contaminated dirt in play, where is it and who is responsible for it?" she said.

Duggan said the building authority had "banned the use of 96 dirt in the first place."

"In cases where we've gotten any evidence of somebody who put in dirt that wasn't tested, we made them pull it out and replace it," he said. "No one has ever suggested on the federal side that the land bank has been anything but diligent on the environmental controls on the dirt."

In subpoenas dated Jan. 10, the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program is seeking two years' worth of documentation from certain contractors over dirt used to fill holes for homes torn down under the blight removal effort.

Federal investigators have demanded that demolition firms produce receipts and records that reveal where their backfill dirt was coming from, who trucked it to sites in Detroit and where it was dropped off.

Both the land bank and building authority have said they continue to cooperate fully with the SIGTARP investigation. On Wednesday, each reiterated they had not received a subpoena about backfill.

In August 2014, the building authority banned the use of any dirt from the I-96 reconstruction project to fill residential demolition holes, "due to the high level of salt content identified through independent soil testing," Building Authority Director Tyrone Clifton said in a statement posted Tuesday on the city's website. 

Later, it made the same decision with a variety of other sources, he said.

Katie Bach, a spokesman for the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, which allocates funds for the program, told The News last month that Detroit implemented a new dirt tracking system late last year.

During the time period referenced in the subpoenas, Detroit required contractors to provide invoices for dirt and the land bank maintained load tickets that documented the quantity and where it was dropped, according to MSHDA. 

"The biggest difference is that the source is now being documented," Bach said in January.

Clifton said the building authority also put a system in place to alert is compliance team when authorized dirt had been exhausted. Clifton noted one contractor, DMC Consultants, recently begun filling holes with unauthorized dirt.

A representative with DMC could not be immediately reached Wednesday for comment. 

Farkas said soil sampling is taking place for 37 holes that DMC filled with dirt that had not been previously authorized. Testing will determine whether the soil is unsafe for residential use.

"Should results show otherwise for any of the locations, DMC at its own expense will be required to remove and properly dispose of the dirt from those sites, then replace it with approved backfill," he said.

The company is also ineligible from bidding through April due to violations issued in January.

As of Wednesday, there are 365 open holes at demolition sites. Of those, 191 are within the 30-day compliance period. The other 110 open holes are beyond the limit, of which DMC has the most.

The company has been issued a "stop work order," prohibiting them from knocking down more structures without approval until they catch up on the backlog.