Community meets with state, fed officials in wake of Detroit dock collapse

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Federal, state and local officials met Thursday to update residents on the response to the recent Detroit Bulk Storage collapse of a pile of stored aggregate limestone into the river.

"We’re here to present a path forward… so this does not happen again," said Justin Onwenu, an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club, to more than 100 people at the meeting at Cass Corridor Commons.  

Community members gather in Detroit on Thursday for a meeting in response to a dock collapse that sent piles of aggregate stored by Detroit Bulk Storage into the Detroit River last month.

The event came a day after officials said that analysis of the spill by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy labs in Lansing from the Detroit Bulk Storage waterfront site last month indicates that there were no adverse effects on the Detroit River.

The testing results were announced a few hours after the Great Lakes Water Authority said it was testing water from the Detroit River after the collapse.

Tracy Kecskemeti, the southeast Michigan district coordinator with EGLE, said the water authority results were pending. But testing results from a city of Wyandotte water intake site downstream from the site have not shown detectable levels of contaminants, she said.

Tracy Kecskemeti, with the state's Department of of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, updates the community with information about water testing of the Detroit River after the dock collapse.

Kecskemeti addressed concerns about lingering contaminants from when the riverfront site belonged to Detroit Revere Copper and Brass, which during the 1940's handled uranium and other potentially dangerous materials as a subcontractor under the Manhattan Project that developed nuclear weapons. 

Kecskemeti said that findings from a previous Energy Department radiological survey released in 1990 found no areas with direct radiation levels above background levels. She noted that EGLE conducted river sediment sampling and radiation testing this year.

"There’s not a radiological hazard on that site," she said. 

She also said that her department has issued notices to Detroit Bulk Storage and the property owner advising them that they violated the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act. They were ordered to remove limestone from the river, secure the shoreline to prevent erosion and address potentially contaminated river sediments during restoration. A restoration plan was expected to be provided within 15 days.

"One of our biggest concerns is that material being dredged up," Kecskemeti said. Her department is working with city, state and federal agencies "to make sure these things don’t get overlooked again," she said.

Meanwhile, "going forward, all commercial properties on the water will have to have their seawalls inspected by a third-party engineering firm to ensure there is structural integrity," said Paul Max, general manager of environmental affairs for Detroit's Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department. 

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, state Sen. Stephanie Chang and state Rep. Tyrone Carter as well as community groups including the East Michigan Environmental Action Council and Friends of the Detroit River also attended the meeting.

"Water quality in Michigan is a sensitive issue," Lawrence told the audience. "After what we saw happen in Flint, and the fact that the government was responsible for what happened, I'm just as sensitive as you are."

Melanie Brown, community affairs director with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office, said the administration was in frequent contact with investigators "to make sure that this incident doesn’t happen again." 

Water samples conducted at the site of the southwest Detroit collapse showed no detectable contaminants or that they were "well below water quality standards," state officials said this week.

At least three water samples were taken, one 2,540 feet upstream from the site, one directly in front of the spill area and the other 1,040 feet downstream.

A photo of  the aftermath of the dock collapse is shown at the meeting Thursday at Cass Corridor Commons in Detroit.

Samples taken upstream and downstream were tested for metals, PCBs, suspended solids and industrial contaminants, and processed in an expedited fashion, the state said. 

In spite of Kecskemeti's update and the state's water analysis, others Thursday wanted more action taken, including additional independent testing below the river surface and strict oversight of the company's response.

"We just cannot rely on these corporate polluters to do right by us," U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib said to applause.

Tahira Ahmad, a lifelong Detroit resident, hoped for more oversight and stronger penalties.

"There needs to be more than this," she said. "They're not working fast enough."