Environmental groups urge Detroit's council to act on river protection law

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Environmental advocates are urging Detroit's City Council to take action on an ordinance that aims to safeguard the Detroit River by imposing stricter rules for companies operating along the waterway.

Environmental groups joined Monday with a representative from the city's building and safety department and Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López for a virtual news conference to make the case for advancing the "Detroit River Protection Ordinance." 

The Detroit skyline is seen from the Appledore IV sailboat along the Detroit River during a Detroit Historical Tour
in Detroit on Friday, May 14, 2021.

Castañeda-López drafted the proposal more than a year ago in hopes of beefing up inspections and maintenance rules for businesses operating near the river's shoreline following a November 2019 dock collapse at an unlicensed site that sent potentially harmful contaminants into the water. The proposal also would require emergency notifications to protect and inform residents in the event of another incident. 

"We all know it's time to put these protections in place so that we can make sure that the residents of Detroit and south of us have clean water to drink and swim in," said Raquel Garcia, executive director of Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision.

Garcia said the dock collapse was alarming to the community and that same year, residents also witnessed hundreds of dead fish floating in the water. In 2020, she contends, mounds of foam and untreated wastewater were discharged into the water from an industrial site.

"From the 8,000 trucks that cross the (Ambassador) bridge daily, we see 500,000 school absences annually, increased rates of asthma, COPD, cancers and of course, elevated rates of lead in as much as 20% of the kids in our city," she said. 

Garcia's group, the Sierra Club, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and an enforcement officer from Detroit's Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department held the news conference just ahead of a Monday discussion on the proposal in council's Public Health and Safety Committee. 

The ordinance language was recently approved by Detroit's Law Department and now is being vetted by the council committee. During public comment Monday, a handful of residents advocated for the protection ordinance. Two others, including a dock inspector, told the council committee that they believe the ordinance was "an overreaction to one bad incident."

Castañeda-López, while presenting to the committee, said the proposal is "about preventing future incidents by requiring regular inspections, protecting drinking water and holding bad actors accountable."

The councilwoman argued Monday for the committee to move the measure to the full council for consideration. But councilmembers Janeé Ayers and Roy McCalister Jr. said they aren't ready to take action.

Ayers noted Monday that she has multiple meetings scheduled to discuss the proposal and told colleagues: "I'm not in a position to move this today, but I applaud the effort." 

After the presentation, McCalister added he was in the same position as Ayers and believes the measure "needs more discussion."

The ordinance was initiated after the Nov. 26, 2019 dock collapse prompted worries of contamination since potentially dangerous materials, including uranium, were handled at the former Revere Copper site on Jefferson in the 1940s to develop nuclear weapons under the Manhattan Project.

Testing results in January 2020 showed the water remained clean after the incident, according to Great Lakes Water Authority.

Last fall, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy reached an administrative consent agreement with Revere Dock LLC, requiring the dock owners to pay $60,000 in penalties for violations tied to the 2019 collapse.

The agreement cited four alleged violations of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act for discharging a substance into the waters that could injure the public or wildlife, violations of due care responsibilities as well as improper permitting. 

Justin Onwenu, an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club, said the ordinance calls for three things: prevention of shoreline collapses, protection of the community's drinking water, and accountability of operators who may be reckless.

"This ordinance is specifically addressing the needs and the gaps at the city of Detroit level," he told the Public Health and Safety Committee. 

Castañeda-López said once the proposal moves out of committee, a public hearing will be scheduled. The goal is to have the ordinance passed by the full council and implemented in January 2022. 

Jessica Parker, chief enforcement officer of BSEED, said she's eager to impose regular inspections that will hold commercial properties accountable.

To do so, businesses must first be identified, obtain a certificate of registration and a certificate of compliance. The businesses would maintain compliance after receiving an inspection from BSEED every two years. As part of the proposal, seawall inspections would be required every five years for businesses with outside bulk storage

The building department is also crafting an emergency plan so that they are responding, as opposed to reacting, Parker added. 

Currently, Detroit doesn't require businesses to be registered and it's unclear how many there are. Parker said the department inspected 152 businesses and issued 1,054 blight tickets in 2020. She said only about 74 businesses are cooperating with inspections and 45 have turned in seawall reports. 

"We want to work with you, we want compliance from our commercial properties," Parker said. "We want feedback and we want to make sure all are committed. It's not just accountability from businesses but with the city. BSEED will have reports turned over to the city council and mayor's office every two years and reports will be on our website."

Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, said the ordinance is necessary to fill the gaps because "there are no similar requirements at the federal or state level regarding maintenance of waterfront infrastructure of sea walls and docks."

"In order for us to adequately protect it, the city of Detroit needs to be at the forefront of making sure that they are receiving immediate notice if anything happens," he said. 


Twitter: @SarahRahal_