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Ordinance introduced to protect Detroit River after contaminated dock collapse

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Environmental and community advocates in Detroit are pushing for a newly-proposed ordinance that would regulate industrial operations on the city’s riverfront.

The ordinance would require riverfront industrial businesses to get yearly permits from the city.

It would also require seawall and dock maintenance, risk assessments and inspection reports, and notification and response measures when incidents do occur.

Nick Leonard, Executive Director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, wrote the proposed ordinance, which was just introduced before the Detroit City Council on Tuesday.

“It’s easy to make mistakes that can put thousands of people at risk,” Leonard said. “It’s hard to fix them. It’s hard to clean them up.”

The ordinance was sparked by an incident last November. That’s when a contaminated site operated by Revere Dock, LLC, partially collapsed into the Detroit River. The company had been storing limestone aggregate materials there without a permit.

The dock was used in the 1940s and 50s to produce uranium rods for U.S. government nuclear projects, sparking concerns about contamination of the waterway. Initial water testing from the Detroit River did not reveal contamination levels that exceeds federal government standards.

However, the site itself is contaminated, and a sinkhole has formed on the site. Nick Assendelft, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), says Revere Dock is developing an interim response plan with EGLE’s help to “keep contaminated soil from eroding further into the river, and keep what spilled into the river in place.” EGLE called the company's initial response plan to contain pollution "inadequate."

Assendelft says the final restoration plan is due in March, “which will detail their plans to restore the site to its pre-spill state and remediate the aggregate that spilled into the river with the least amount of disturbance to the riverbed, which we know has contaminants.” Further water sampling results, from both the sinkhole and the river, are due in mid-March.

Another subject of concern was the lack of notification about the collapse. It was first brought to public attention by the Windsor Star. Activists say that should never have happened, and highlight the need for the notification and emergency response requirements contained in the ordinance.

“This issue is urgent,” said Justin Onwenu, Environmental Justice Director for the Michigan Sierra Club. “We want to make sure that our rivers, our waters are protected, and we want to make sure that companies are held accountable for when they put our waters at risk.”

Gregg Ward operates the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, which moves trucks containing hazardous materials across the Detroit River between the U.S. and Canada. He says business owners should embrace the ordinance.

“Most people operate, or try to operate, safely,” Ward said. “This is a way to standardize the rules and regulations and expectations of businesses who are operating on the river.”

The measure needs approval from the Detroit City Council. Council member Raquel Castañeda-Lopez, who introduced the proposal, says it needs review from the city’s law department and will likely take months to come up for a full Council vote.

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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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