Environmental groups propose water protection law for Detroit

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — A new ordinance is aiming to address "gaps and failures" in the controls for companies operating along the Detroit River after a dock collapsed in November at an unlicensed site, sending potential harmful contaminants into the waterway. 

The "Detroit River Protection Ordinance," sponsored by Detroit City Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, would beef up inspections and maintenance rules for businesses operating near the river's shoreline as well as emergency notification rules to protect and inform residents, a coalition of environmental groups announced Tuesday at a news conference outside City Hall.

City Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda-Lopez talks about water protections at a Tuesday news conference.

"For too long, we have allowed industry to operate with these archaic practices and just said 'this is the status quo,'" said Castaneda-Lopez, who introduced the bill Tuesday as the first of several anticipated in the next year to address environmental justice.

"We shouldn't have to live in neighborhoods where people are struggling to breathe, where people question the water quality and people can't enjoy their neighborhoods."

The community-led plan came after a Nov. 26 dock collapse at the former Revere Copper site on Jefferson. The incident prompted worries of contamination since potentially dangerous materials, including uranium, were handled at the former plant on Jefferson in the 1940s to develop nuclear weapons under the Manhattan Project. 

Multiple soil and water samples and environmental assessments conducted there haven’t turned up any threat to the drinking water supply or the public, Brian Kelly with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s emergency response branch told council members.

“While clearly, this site needs to be fixed … we see there’s no threat to the community outside of the immediate area of this collapse,” Kelly said during the Tuesday committee session.

Testing results in January showed the water remained clean after the incident, according to Great Lakes Water Authority. 

"We were all sort of surprised that the city of Detroit doesn't really have a lot of laws on the books that protect the Detroit River," said Justin Onwenu, an environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club. "We're hoping this shores up a lot of those systematic failures."

Revere Dock LLC had gained ownership of the long-vacant site from the city of Detroit in 2015 and leased it to Detroit Bulk Storage. The city's building department has said up to 40,000 tons of limestone had been amassed there since summer without a permit.

Revere obtained permits in August 2016 for site alterations and improvements and later secured electrical permits, according to David Bell, the city's director of Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department. But it "did not ever" submit a permit to have storage of aggregate materials, Bell said.

Detroit building officials told council Tuesday that the city has issued more than 250 tickets and fines of more than $100,000 against the property owner and tenant. The Detroit Law Department filed a nuisance lawsuit in January.

Noel Frye, vice president of Detroit Bulk Storage, on Tuesday deferred comment to the site owner, Revere Dock, and its partner Ericksons of Grand Rapids. Representatives from Ericksons could not be immediately reached. 

The company is working to comply with corrective action orders issued by the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.  

Soil and water sampling on the site found lead and several chemicals. One soil sample containing lead, exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency removal management levels. 

Revere "continues to work toward avoiding further erosion of contaminated soil into the Detroit River, and we are vetting their plans along the way," EGLE spokesman Nick Assendelft said in a Tuesday email. 

By the end of the month, the state environmental department expects to receive Revere's evaluation of the sinkhole that has formed on the site, he said. 

"We also have soil and water samples that are pending and hope to have those results by mid-March," Assendelft said.

A photo of the collapse from Nov. 26, 2019, shown at a community meeting in response to the Detroit Bulk Storage collapse into the Detroit River at the Cass Corridor Commons in Detroit on Dec. 12, 2019.

Residents and environmental groups didn't learn of the dock collapse until early December, sparking worries over what could have entered the river, potential cleanup plans or testing to determine whether there was a public health risk, Onwenu said.

Several dozen groups then formed a coalition to lobby for changes. The proposed ordinance, he said, seeks to address "a lot of the gaps that exist that made the collapse into the river possible."

The administration has not reviewed the draft ordinance yet but has supported the initiative, said Alexis Wiley, chief of staff to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

City officials already have implemented seawall inspections as well as requirements for engineering assessments every five years, she noted.

"The mayor is just as concerned about the health and safety of our river as they are," Wiley said. "He looks forward to working with them as we move forward with this ordinance."

The draft law proposes a waterfront operation certificate "to reduce the frequency of unpermitted operation," and a risk assessment that would include, among other things, a description of what bulk materials would be used or stored there and activities being conducted within 100 feet of a body of water. 

The proposed law includes a fine of $5,000 per day for failing to notify the city of a release of pollution. Other violations would result in fines of $1,000 for a first offense, $2,000 for the second and $3,000 for the third offense, organizers said. 

"We're hoping people will just be in compliance," said Castaneda-Lopez, noting fines will go into the city's Public Health Fund to benefit affected communities.

It would call for maintenance of barriers along the waterway and inspections for properties abutting the water that are contaminated. There also are notification requirements for property owners or operators in the event of an incident along the shoreline.

The dock collapse was a "wake-up call" for the environmental community in Detroit, said Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center.

"It shined a light on how pervasive this issue is," he said, noting the city is lacking in its inspection requirements as are duties for property owners to maintain or repair seawalls.

Material is loaded into a gravel-train semi at Detroit Bulk Storage.

The proposed ordinance would empower citizens to bring a civil action in Wayne County Circuit Court "to compel compliance" or seek civil penalties for a violation, Leonard said. Violators of the ordinance would be subject to civil fines.

The city, Leonard said, is "overburdened" and "can't enforce quickly enough."

"Citizens should be able to help the city enforce these things that are meant to protect their health and quality of life," he said. 

Leonard said the draft ordinance centers on property maintenance and use, which fall under city regulation. Organizers of the proposal, he said, are "still relying on the state to vigorously enforce water quality laws."

The proposed ordinance also would amend a city law that governs bulk storage facilities to shift a set-back requirements for storage piles to 150 feet from the water from the existing 25 feet, according to a draft of the proposed ordinance. 

Jamesa Johnson-Greer, a policy specialist with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, said the groups hope that the ordinance will ensure there are safeguards to protect residents in the event of a public health risk.

"It's most important to see protections for city residents so they are not faced with something like we saw in Flint," she said of the lead-tainted water crisis. "No one was notified that their water had been compromised."

People listen during the community meeting in response to the Detroit Bulk Storage collapse into the Detroit River at the Cass Corridor Commons in Detroit on Dec. 12, 2019.

The effort also was co-led by the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, Michigan Environmental Justice Center, Michigan Environmental Council, Detroit Mercy Environmental Law Center and others.