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Concerns rise after Detroit River shoreline collapse at contaminated site

Pet coke piles on Detroit riverfront in 2013.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

A Windsor politician is calling for a bi-national investigation - and an environmental group is calling for the restoration of Michigan's "Polluter Pay" laws.

That's after part of a property owned by Detroit Bulk Storage collapsed into the Detroit River last week.  The collapse is initially being blamed on the weight of massive piles of sand, gravel and other construction materials the company is storing on site.

The property is suspected of being contaminated with PCB's and other toxic substances, and it may still contain some uranium and thorium.  The land was used by Revere Copper and Brass in the 1940s and early 1950s to build uranium parts for atomic bombs.  

The property is near the water intake pipes used by the Great Lakes Water Authority, which supplies water to the city of Detroit and other communities in metro Detroit.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy says it is "meeting with stakeholders to discuss the situation,when we can access the site, and determine what follow-up actions will be necessary by EGLE and its partners. EGLE’s investigation of the incident will include evaluating which contaminants may be present in the soil and the nearby water and what impact the incident had on the river."

The situation is causing concern on both sides of the river.

“An immediate study should be conducted on the dangers presented to the Detroit waterways and Great Lakes region," says Windsor, Ontario MP Brian Masse.  "Forty million people use the Great Lakes for drinking water, and the ecosystem is already fragile."

Masse says there should be an immediate bi-national investigation.

Sean McBrearty of Clean Water Action of Michigan says this site - and others like it across Michigan - should have been cleaned up long before this.

"Because there hasn't been enough implementation or strong enough laws by the state to force the people responsible for this contamination to clean it up, you now have a situation where it's risking source water for the city of Detroit," says McBrearty. "Unfortunately, bills that would restore Michigan's Polluter Pay law, which used to be the strongest polluter pay law in the country, have been sitting in committee since February without as much as a hearing."

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan's office has not yet responded to a request for comment on the situation. 

No one answered calls made to Detroit Bulk Storage.   

This is not the first environmental controversy involving the company.  

Nearby residents have complained for many years of clouds of pet coke dust emanating from the property.  

Detroit passed an ordinance in 2017 requiring pet coke to be stored inside enclosed structures.

Marathon is currently seeking a variance from the ordinance.

Correction:  an earlier version of this story reported that the Detroit Bulk Storage site could be contaminated with PFAS compounds, among other toxic substances.  At this point, there are no tests showing PFAS on the property, according to the Michigan Department of Environment (EGLE).

In addition, an earlier version of this story said the pet coke stored at Detroit Bulk Storage was owned by Marathon Refinery.  Marathon Refinery says it produced the pet coke, but it no longer owned it by the time it was stored at Detroit Bulk Storage.   

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Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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