Last week, a southwest Detroit dock thought to be contaminated with uranium collapsed into the river. Authorities have assured the public that there is little to no risk of uranium exposure in our water sources based on extensive tests done on the Detroit River and soil tests done on site.

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

More: Lawmaker urges probe of dock collapse at Detroit site that once had radioactive material

Let me be clear: Not having uranium in the Detroit River is great news, but it’s also a ridiculously low bar to set for public safety and healthy waterways. This may not be the public health crisis that many feared at first glance, and for that we should be relieved, but there is still a lot at stake.

The property collapse into the river is still an illegal fill of a navigable water under the clean water act. Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) officials were first alerted about the collapse by Canadian reporters at the Windsor Star. It took state authorities over a week to investigate the site’s history.

The permitting guidelines at the state and city level are still too lax. In addition, eroding shorelines and coastline collapse may only get worse as Great Lakes water levels near an all-time high.

Given these facts, it is unclear if our leaders truly understand the importance of this moment and how it connects to people’s larger concerns about the responsiveness of government, the willingness of government to take proactive steps to hold industries accountable, and the urgency of protecting our water sources, especially the Great Lakes.

In the aftermath of Flint and amid widespread PFAS contamination and a cloud of oil vapor released from a Marathon refinery, residents want to see that their government officials understand their suspicion and frustration and will act accordingly by taking aggressive and transparent steps.

Top government officials, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Mayor Mike Duggan, should take this opportunity to reassure the public that they can be trusted to protect public health through swift and transparent action by putting forth proposals to clarify protocol for notification and rapid response. We should be hearing from authorities from our own country in a timely manner. 

Moving forward, we need a detailed assessment of the potential risk of materials and industries along the Detroit River. We must clean up dirty sites within close proximity to our waterways.

This Thursday at 7 p.m. at 1st Unitarian Church, 4605 Cass Ave., community stakeholders from across the state will be holding a town hall. This will be an opportunity for our public officials to show that they are solutions-oriented and responsive to the needs of citizens. We are saving a seat for Whitmer, Duggan and any other elected officials committed to protecting public health, the Great Lakes and our drinking water and ensuring that all companies do the same.

Between ensuring that our drinking water is safe, restoring citizen confidence in government, and making sure that we are prepared for future emergencies like this, there is a lot at stake.

Justin Onwenu is an environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club. 

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