Michigan on the sidelines as momentum builds for cleanup of decades old toxic sediment
There’s an axiom that goes like this. If you want to know what’s important to an elected official, don’t listen to what they say, watch what they fund.
I’m reminded of the axiom based on recent goings on with Great Lakes issues.
The U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers announced last week that the cost to build a new Soo Lock to enhance shipping could double or even triple from the original $929 million estimate.
Michigan and the region have wanted the lock upgrade since the mid-1980’s.
Work on the new lock has been underway for some time as Congress already approved and funded the project, which included about $50 million that Michigan kicked in while former Gov. Rick Snyder was in office. That contribution was said to be the commitment the feds were looking for to get the project approved.
A federal project costing more than anticipated isn’t news, it’s basically expected. But not by the whopping amount that doubles or potentially triples its cost.
Asked to explain the increase, an Army Corps spokesperson cited “market conditions” as the culprit and said it was working on an update to Congress, according to Detroit News reporting.
Sources told me that while market conditions may have changed, economists who developed cost estimates were out of touch with the reality of the magnitude of the project. And now with the addition of federal infrastructure money in play, there’s too much federal money chasing not enough contractors. The perfect storm for higher costs.
Politicians from both political parties in Michigan who worked to secure the funding expressed the requisite outrage, but acknowledged they will have to find a way to fund the project.
That’s because the project is a priority for the state of Michigan, writ large. And priorities get funded.
Iconic river is a low priority
The other side of the coin is also true. When something isn’t a priority it doesn’t make the budget, even when cash is available like it is now.
A classic example is the cleanup of toxic sediment in the Detroit River that’s been there for decades, it hasn’t been a priority.
The river contains over 6 million cubic yards of sediment of which, the U.S. EPA estimates 3.5 million is toxic - as in PCBs, grease, metals and a lot of bacteria.
Since 2010 with the advent of federal Great Lakes restoration funding, $3.8 billion has been spent on an array of projects including on sites like the Detroit River. But very little spent on sediment remediation for the river that’s described as the heart of the Great Lakes.
But now comes President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill and Biden has promised $1 billion to clean up legacy toxic sites in the Great Lakes region. The cost for the Detroit River is at least $100 million and no surprise, it could be more according to the EPA.
But this is the federal government and that means bureaucracy. The mechanism for how to get that money hasn’t been revealed yet. And it’s likely that the current requirement for a state or local contribution will be required.
The state of Michigan would be the best source of the funding, it’s flush with cash these days and is reporting budget surpluses. But in a waffle of an answer on providing funding, a senior state executive called the Detroit River “iconic,” but dodged the question of the state kicking in from its own coffers.
You see, that’s because the Detroit River is not a priority for the state. Like it wasn’t a priority for the federal government from 2010-2022 when billions of dollars were available.
I shared that opinion with a source who is close to the issue recently at a conference about the health of the Detroit River. He bristled and said that’s not true. I replied, “ok, a low priority?” A pause and a blank stare followed and he shrugged his shoulders. I took that as a yes.
My take on Michigan is that it sees cleanup of these toxic sites like the Detroit River and its cousin the Rouge, as a federal responsibility. The state will provide staff support so it can say it’s in the game. But the river won’t be a priority, no matter that it’s arguably the most important waterway in the state.
It’s important because it’s shared with Canada, the country that’s financing the new Gordie Howe Bridge over the river that will connect Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. And because it’s the connecting point between the upper and lower lakes through which critical commodities pass that drive the regional and national economies.
And the Detroit River is important to the people of Detroit. Think Belle Isle, which the state likes to tout in its Pure Michigan ads, plus freighter watching and the Riverwalk. Not to mention people who fish from the banks of the river with PCBs lurking below. There’s no mention of that by Pure Michigan.
Michigan and other Great Lakes states are still regularly referred to as the Rust Belt, a tag the region has been unable to shake. But if you wanted to ditch that legacy moniker, one way would be to clean up the toxic mess that makes it still accurate.
At the Detroit River conference, University of Michigan - Dearborn Chancellor Domenico Grasso told the attendees that “we use ecological systems and services, but we don’t pay for them.”
That’s Michigan in a nutshell. It professes to value the river but not enough to invest money in its cleanup.
And this from my Twitter feed.
“The state of Michigan gives the city of Detroit a hard time every chance they get. It’s been that way for decades,” said a follower.
Now, the state has a chance to make amends. But it has to make its “iconic” river a priority. About $50 million like the state put up for a new Soo Lock sounds right.
It’s also the amount Michigan quietly budgeted recently to support a questionable potash mine. One that will suck up precious groundwater from the area already stressed by the state’s approval of water taking for bottled water.
Photo: The Detroit River with
Lake St. Clair to the north.
Chicago-based environmental journalist