EPA chief Regan touts cleanup aid for Metro Detroit rivers

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Lawmakers and federal environmental officials visited Detroit on Friday to tout the incoming injection of federal funding designed to fuel environmental cleanup and water protection programs in the coming decade. 

The largest appropriation will come through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a program launched in 2010 to fund cleanup projects at the most polluted sites in the Great Lakes basin. 

The bipartisan infrastructure bill put more than $1 billion into the program over the next five years. It will help finish physical cleanup work on nine of the 11 toxic sites in Michigan known as "areas of concern" by 2030. 

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, left, highlights Detroit's Basement Backup Protection $15 million Program to help residents impacted by flooding last year designed to mitigate damage from future flooding events along with DWSD Director Gary Brown at the Holy Temple Church in Detroit on Friday, February 18, 2021.

Many of those areas of concern, including the Clinton River, Detroit River, River Raisin and Rouge River, are in Metro Detroit.

More:How $1B in federal aid for Great Lakes will clean up 9 areas in Michigan by 2030

"The long history of indiscriminate dumping of polluted discharges led to the degradation of fish and wildlife population and threatened the well-being of communities along the (Detroit) River," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan said during a press conference at the Dossin Great Lakes museum on Belle Isle. 

Thanks to the GLRI and the upcoming infusion of money, "this area is on the mend," he said. "But more work needs to be done to ensure that the Detroit River experiences a true resurgence."

The federal infrastructure bill also will put an additional $213 million into a pair of state revolving loan programs that provide low-interest loans to communities to help them tackle drinking water and sewer system infrastructure projects.

The loan programs typically get $85 million in annual federal funds, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy deputy director Amy Epkey said. The state uses that money plus repayments on previous loans to loan communities between $500 million and $800 million a year. 

Demand for those loans last year was the highest Epkey had ever seen in the near decade she has worked for the department.

In the last cycle, 145 communities requested a total of $1.1 billion in loans for drinking water projects, EGLE spokesman Hugh McDiarmid said. Another 113 applied for $1.3 billion in loans for clean water projects. 

Preventing basement backups

Before Regan's stop at the Dossin museum, he joined city and state officials and federal lawmakers at Holy Temple Church in Detroit's Aviation Sub neighborhood Friday morning to promote a newly announced plan to address sewer backups.

Many Detroit residents, primarily in low-lying neighborhoods, had sewage back up into their basement this summer when heavy rainstorms caused widespread flooding in the region. 

Climate change is exacerbating those heavy storms, Regan said.

"It's hard to imagine, yet we're all here," he said after describing precious items like elementary school trophies that Detroit families lost in flooded basements. "We know that the climate crisis is making flooding worse, more common and more severe." 

More:Why Metro Detroit is unprepared for major storms

Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit Water and Sewerage Director Gary Brown announced a plan to help residents deal with floods in early February. They secured $15 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding to install sump pumps and backwater valves and disconnect downspouts from homes in 11 flood-prone neighborhoods.

They will start the Basement Backup Protection Plan as a pilot this spring with $2.4 million for work in the Aviation Sub and Victoria Park neighborhoods. More than 1,000 people already have applied, Brown said. 

They anticipate it will cost about $6,000 to fix up each home, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh said, although some might require less work and cost less. The program's $15 million budget could pay for work in at least 2,500 homes. 

DWSD Director Gary Brown, left, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib spoke at the Holy Temple Church in Detroit to highlight the city's Basement Backup Protection Program on Friday, February 18, 2021.

The program will not reimburse residents such as Thomas and Marjorie Dickerson, who already paid to waterproof the basement of their Esper Road home.

The couple, both 68, spent $7,200 on a backup protection valve, Thomas Dickerson said. That was after they spent roughly $8,000 hiring contractors to clean up the wreckage caused by summer storms that left five inches of water in their basement.

"Everything is gone," he said. "The ceiling is gone. The walls are gone. The carpeting's gone." 

The Dickersons used a Federal Emergency Management Agency loan to pay for the work up front. 

The department is looking at other programs to help residents pay for waterproofing their homes, Brown said. 

"This is not going to be the only program that gets rolled out," he said. "There will be other programs that Detroit city council and others will be looking at in terms of putting dollars ... to help residents with that issue."

Increased street flooding will be a likely side effect to preventing backups in basements, Brown said. 

"When that flow is not being stored in the basements, it's going to be on the outside," he said. "You're going to have some additional flow, temporarily, on the streets. We think that's a good trade-off because, again, once you get sewage into basements it becomes a public health and safety issue."

Duggan said he hopes to present contract options for the plan to City council next week. Brown said he will encourage them to choose a Detroit-based contractor to do the work, which will help build local plumbing companies' capacity and respond quickly during major floods. 

More:Detroit launches $15M effort to curb basement backups in flood-prone neighborhoods