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City Council approves Detroit River 'protection' ordinance spurred by dock collapse

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved an ordinance to strengthen rules for businesses operating along the Detroit River.

The “Detroit River Protection Ordinance” was proposed by Councilwoman Raquel Castañeda-López to beef up inspections and maintenance rules for companies along the shoreline after a November 2019 dock collapse at an unlicensed site that sent potentially harmful contaminants into the water.

The ordinance also requires emergency notifications to protect and inform residents in the event of another incident. 

The council initially voted 6-1 Tuesday, with Council President Brenda Jones voting against the ordinance citing "some concerns" before she reconsidered her vote and voted in support.

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.

Castañeda-López said in a Tuesday press release following the vote, that the ordinance "is a step forward in rectifying Detroit’s environmental justice inequities."

"Detroiters deserve the right to play along their riverfront and drink from its waters without fear for their health or safety. The Detroit River Protection ordinance will ensure that generations to come have the same rights," Castañeda-López said.

The protection ordinance is set to be implemented on July 1, 2022.

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

In January 2020, the Great Lakes Water Authority said testing confirmed that the incident had no impact on water quality.

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. 

Under the new ordinance, the city's Buildings, Safety Engineering and Environmental Department shall maintain a registry of all property owners on the water and the list should be publicly available on the city's website. The city will charge a registration fee. 

Each private property owner is responsible for submitting a seawall report every five years along with a geotechnical report for operators with bulk storage, heavy equipment utilization, or where redevelopment is taking place. City officials will be required to report to the City Council every two years on the state of the city's waterfront infrastructure.

Property owners are also required to provide an emergency notice no later than 48 hours in the event of a shoreline breach, flooding, release, threat of release, structural failure, right of way compromise or environmental contamination.

Jessica Parker, chief enforcement officer for BSEED, said she's eager to impose regular inspections to hold commercial properties accountable. Currently, Detroit doesn't require businesses to be registered and it's unclear how many there are.

In the aftermath of the 2019 dock collapse, more than 1,050 tickets and $500,000 in fines were issued to property owners with violations along the river.

"This ordinance is a proactive step to help keep our waterways safe and clean for public use,” Parker said in a press release.

But Kyle Burleson, director of port operations for the Detroit Wayne County Port Authority, said Tuesday that stakeholders believe some of the new law is “duplicative” and exemptions for properties aren’t applied evenly.

“The entire business community and environmental consulting community, as well as the port authority, shares that goal with the environmental community and Councilmember Castañeda-López to protect our river,” he said. “I just believe there’s a better way to do it.”

David Lilly, a condo operator along the riverfront, argues the law would create an “unfair burden” for some residents on the waterfront. He noted that single residential properties and two-family properties are excused, but three-family, four-family, or more family properties are regulated.

“There’s no good reason for this and the ordinance doesn’t provide significant justification for this level of regulation,” he said. “Residential users are not using hazardous materials. As owners, we are already subject to expensive and thorough regulations by the city, such as façade inspection and rental property compliance."

Nearly a dozen other residents spoke in favor of the proposal during public comment, including Sandra Turner-Handy, a resident and member of the Michigan Environmental Council.

“We need to pass this ordinance in order to protect our residents and our water and hold those that have property along the river docks, that are storing toxins, accountable for their facilities in order to protect our Detroit River and the residents of the city of Detroit,” she said.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_