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In letters, Reps. Tlaib, Lawrence question "alarming lack of oversight" in demolition programs

Under Mayor Mike Duggan, Detroit has used federal anti-blight funds for an aggressive demolition campaign.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Detroit’s two representatives in Congress are worried that state regulators may be letting hazards slip through the cracks of federally-funded demolition programs.

Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Brenda Lawrence, both Democrats, outline those worries in letters sent to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Michigan State Housing Development Authority Friday.

They urge the agencies to investigate possible public health concerns from potentially contaminated demolition sites in Detroit. But they also express concerns about federally-funded blight elimination programs statewide, and urge the state agencies to fully implement recommendations from a 2017 federal report on Flint’s demolition program.

Detroit has by far the biggest demolition program in the state. It’s demolished more than 11,000 blighted homes during Mayor Mike Duggan’s tenure, mostly by using about $250 million from the federal Hardest Hit Fund.

But the program has had a number of problems, ranging from improper handling of asbestos-laden materials to contractors burying debris onsite post-demolition. It’s also the subject of a federal investigation.

Most recently, reports have surfaced that some contractors possibly used contaminated soil as infill on post-demolition sites. In January, a federal agency issued subpoenas demanding documentation from contractors about the sources of infill dirt.

“The potential use of contaminated and unverified sources of dirt being used to fill these demolition sites presents an alarming lack of oversight that could have public health ramifications for thousands of Michiganders,” Lawrence and Tlaib wrote. “Unfortunately, recent reporting indicates that the Blight Elimination Program is not functioning the way it should.”

Lawrence and Tlaib go on to request that MDEQ “provide us with an update on the oversight they have conducted on the Blight Elimination Program in Detroit and across the state of Michigan.”

In a statement, MSHDA spokeswoman Katie Bach says the agency, which oversees blight elimination programs statewide, welcomes the inquiry and plans a “detailed response” to the congresswomen’s concerns.

“We have consistently sought accountability as part of our program oversight, whether for procurement, invoicing, environmental safety or any other facet of the program,” Bach said. “In fact, in 2016, we asked U.S. Treasury to temporarily suspend Detroit’s program after which processes and procedures were put in place to address audit concerns.

“In more recent weeks, environmental and health and safety concerns have been raised, and MHA has taken these seriously by investigating and responding with added protections to ensure public safety and improve the demolition program.”

Bach said those added protections "include but are not limited to" more site inspections, contractor training, and dirt testing requirements.

Detroit Building Authority director of special projects Brian Farkas said the agency requires that “every demolition hole be filled with clean dirt from an approved source and we implemented protocols to verify the origin of the backfill. Every demolition site where the backfill was found to be from an unapproved source either was subsequently determined to be within MDEQ guidelines or removed and replaced with approved backfill that meets MDEQ requirements.”

Farkas added that DBA field monitors “monitor demolition sites to ensure contract compliance, primarily public health and safety requirements.”

Farkas said the department has worked closely with federal and city officials on an investigation into the matter, and pledged to address Tlaib and Lawrence’s concerns. “We will be reaching out to their offices in the near future to set up a tour of the demolition program to help them better understand our thorough environmental safety measures,” he said.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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