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Radiation scare on Detroit River a ‘wake-up call’

Even if water tests show no contamination from the recent spill, it still calls attention to Michigan’s inadequate emergency response system

An aerial view of a wide river with cities on either side and a barge sailing through the center.
Dirt potentially contaminated with uranium spilled into the Detroit River over Thanksgiving weekend.
Photo by Michelle Gerard

On Thursday, December 5, the Windsor Star reported that potentially radioactive soil from a site leased by Detroit Bulk Storage had collapsed into the Detroit River over Thanksgiving weekend. beginning with the Manhattan Project during World War II and continuing into the 1950s, Revere Copper and Brass had extruded uranium rods at the site.

Updates on the shoreline collapse came out in a trickle and it wasn’t until the end of the day that public officials began to weigh in on the incident. Justin Onwenu, a community organizer for the Sierra Club, expressed frustration at the slow arrival of information.

“This took place days ago and we just found out yesterday,” he wrote in a press release. “Michiganders deserve emergency response systems in place that will assure communities that public health and safety is adequately protected.”

Although the Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) was able to rule out radiation on the site, serious concerns remain about whether the spill released pollution from the riverbed’s toxic sediment, which could have reached the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) intake downstream from the event.

Even if water tests show no contamination, however, the event illustrates how climate change and other factors could expose Detroit’s history of industrial pollution, and whether or not public institutions are ready to meet this threat.

At the moment, our systems seem underprepared. Curbed Detroit learned that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)—who is in charge of sea walls on the Detroit River—was notified about the spill by Detroit Bulk Storage on November 27, more than a week before the public found out. They didn’t reach out to EGLE until at least a week later on December 4, at which point EGLE had already been contacted by the Windsor Star.

Michigan State Senator Stephanie Chang said she was told about the shoreline collapse by Gregg Ward, the operator of the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry, on the same day. She also contacted EGLE. Chang suggested that Ward may have informed the Windsor Star of the incident as well, meaning that the public found out about the whole event because of one conscientious ferry operator.

Don Reinke from the USACE says it didn’t know about the site’s history of contamination and that it asked Detroit Bulk Storage to contact the EGLE themselves. It’s unclear if this happened and Detroit Bulk Storage has been unresponsive to media requests. “The Corps of engineers is responsible for permitting work and navigable waters,” Reinke says. “If there’s a contamination issue that would be a matter for EGLE to follow up with.”

This mini-saga of who knew what and when shed light on the communication process between government agencies and reporting requirements for businesses. Although divvying up responsibilities might work under normal circumstances, in this instance it seems to have robbed each agency of crucial information. According to Reinke, USACE deals with hundreds of cases a week and the collapse of a shoreline is “not an unusual occurrence.”

In terms of the spill’s impact on the Detroit River and the water intake that serves 38 downriver communities and lies several miles downstream from the collapse, there is a lot that is still unknown. GLWA said in a statement that it doesn’t believe there is any danger because the intake “is not in the direct flow stream of the river where the land collapsed.” Tests for water contaminants like PCBs, PHAs, and mercury are still in process and could take up to six weeks.

Despite previous events, it still doesn’t seem like there is any clear system in place to alert the public about potentially hazardous environmental incidents. “Unfortunately, that’s not really a new issue,” Chang says, citing a gas leak at the Marathon Refinery, also in Southwest Detroit. “How do we notify residents if there is an emergency?”

Aerial view of a large industrial site with smoke emanating from chimneys.
Steel works, petroleum coke storage, and oil refining activities on Zug Island in the Detroit River.

GLWA says that it in the event of an emergency, it would alert emergency management agencies who would inform the public through the Emergency Alert System and Wireless Emergency Alert, which contacts smartphone users. But what qualifies as an emergency and who gets told is unclear. Ownenu says he is pushing EGLE to have a centralized web page where they post environmental emergencies and frequently asked questions.

Incidents like these are not likely to decline in the future. A recent study found that 945 Superfund sites are vulnerable to climate change nationwide. Most of these are coastal facilities vulnerable to sea level rise. Michigan has 21 locations that could be affected by historically high lake and river levels or storm events. The Detroit Bulk Storage facility isn’t even on the Superfund list, suggesting that there are many more places that might need protecting than is currently known.

“The Detroit River, especially on the Southwest side, is industrial,” Onwenu says. “But ‘contaminated’ is probably a more accurate word to use.”

It’s not known if high waters contributed to the shoreline collapse. Though Nick Assendelft, a spokesman for EGLE, said that, “Water has been high around the state and there was some inclement weather the night before the spill happened.”

Just as worrying, a recent assessment by EGLE concluded that there are millions of tons of toxic sediment on the Detroit riverbed. A spill of this kind could disturb toxic sediment or soil and carry it downstream. In yet another piece in the Windsor Star, Alan Hayer—a former environmental engineer for the city of Detroit—says that PCBs on the property were buried at eight feet. “They were not a concern if everything was left the way it was,” he says. “Now, I would be concerned.”

After repeated incidents by Detroit Bulk Storage involving inadequately stored pet coke, a toxic substance, the city of Detroit passed a Fugitive Dust Ordinance in 2017 requiring that certain materials be kept completely within a structure. It’s unclear if that would have applied to the dirt spill in November.

Regardless of the final outcome of the water tests, Onwenu says that the whole incident was a “wakeup call.” He questions whether Detroit is equipped to address toxic sites on and in the river, and if the right reporting requirements are in place for businesses. “It’s something we should be prepared for,” he says, “especially because of the climate crisis.”

Detroit River

, Detroit, MI 48226