State: Samples from Detroit dock collapse site show 'no risk to health'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

State testing at the site of a southwest Detroit dock collapse found radiation levels that fell below what is considered naturally occurring levels in Michigan, indicating there is no danger to public health, according to the state environmental agency. 

Staff tested for radiation Friday at several locations near the collapse after a Canadian lawmaker urged further review of what types of material entered the waterway, citing a facility formerly located at the site that handled uranium in the 1940s and 1950s. The testing included sediment under the dock that fell into the water.

After recording more than 1,000 data points, scientists with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy found that samples farthest from the river tested at about 4 microroentgen per hour while samples closer to the water ranged between 3 and 5 microroentgen per hour.  In Michigan, naturally-occurring radiation levels range between 5 and 8 microroentgen per hour. 

"Today’s testing confirmed there is no elevated radiation risk to health or the environment associated with the collapse," the department said in a statement. 

Water samples taken upstream and downstream of the dock collapse will be tested for metals, PCBs, suspended solids and industrial contaminants and processed in an expedited fashion, the state said.

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

The authority, which has one raw water intake upstream of the dock and another downstream on the Canadian side, is doing independent testing of the water for radionuclides and wants expedited results on the tests.

Heavy machinery moves tons of crushed stone around the Detroit, Michigan shoreline at Detroit Bulk Storage near Historic Fort Wayne in 2019.

Similar testing was performed in 2014 and no problems were found, according to the authority. 

The Great Lakes Water Authority believes the two intake sites several miles upstream and several miles downstream of the collapse are in no danger of contamination from the incident. 

“…the intake is located on the Canadian side of the Detroit River and is not in the direct flow stream of the river where the land collapsed,” the authority said. 

A Canadian lawmaker Thursday urged U.S. and Canadian officials to investigate last month’s dock collapse at the Detroit Bulk Storage site because of fears of water contamination. 

The site used to belong to Detroit Revere Copper and Brass, which during the 1940s handled uranium and other potentially dangerous materials as a subcontractor under the Manhattan Project that developed nuclear weapons. It is just east of historic Fort Wayne and is close to the planned location of the Gordie Howe International Bridge.

Michigan environmental department representative said there is "no evidence to suggest that there is a current radiological risk" at the site — based in part on ground tests done in the spring that found presence of two radioactive elements at or below background levels.

U.S. Energy Department representatives visited the site in September 1989 — five years after a company closed operations — and a "cursory radiological survey at that time revealed no areas with direct radiation levels above background,” according to a 1990 department report. A 1981 survey by Argonne National Laboratory found "no significant residual contamination in readily accessible areas or equipment."

The collapse in late November happened because of consistent, heavy rain the night before the collapse and high water similar eroding the area, similar to issues in West Michigan, Detroit Bulk Storage Vice President Noel Frye told The Detroit News on Thursday. 

The limestone aggregate had been stored 100 feet away from the waterfront and piled 40 to 50 feet high along about 300 feet of waterfront. A Windsor Star story had speculated the aggregate "apparently" had caused the collapse. 

The company’s remediation plan would include a new steel wall and dredging in the Detroit River to remove any aggregate that entered the water, Frye said. 

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, tweeted on Thursday that Detroit Bulk Storage "never notified EGLE last week" about the dock collapse. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, made the same accusation in a Friday release about the dock collapse in her congressional district.

But "there is no requirement that EGLE be notified, unless it involves hazardous materials," said Nick Assendelft, a spokesman at the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Despite assurances that there weren't elevated levels of radiation at the site, Tlaib said she remained concerned about the collapse and said it showed the need for stronger safeguards near natural resources such as the Detroit River. 

"...There are still major unanswered questions about what was spilled into the river when the dock collapsed, what pollutants may have been exposed by the collapse and disturbance of the river bed, and what testing and remediation will take place to ensure the site is safe and that the collapse has not endangered our public health," the first-term lawmaker said.