Lawmaker urges probe of dock collapse at Detroit site that once had radioactive material


A Canadian lawmaker is urging U.S. and Canadian officials to investigate last month’s  dock collapse at a riverfront storage site in southwest Detroit and see if there is a threat of contaminating the river.

The site once had “radioactive contamination,” noted Brian Masse, a New Democratic Party member of the Canadian Parliament who represents the Windsor region.

But Michigan’s environmental department said there is “no evidence to suggest that there is a current radiological risk” at the site — based in part on ground tests done in the spring. But it still plans to assess the situation with Friday boat examinations of the location and drone flights. 

Masse has expressed concern to the Canadian and U.S. governments about the collapse and its potential for contaminating the Detroit River and connecting waterways.

“An immediate study should be conducted on the dangers presented to the Detroit waterways and Great Lakes region,” Masse said in a statement. “Forty million people use the Great Lakes for drinking water, and the ecosystem is already fragile. Any potential threat should be investigated immediately on both sides of the border.”   

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy tested six locations on the Detroit site in the spring. The testing at various depths of sediment for radium and thorium were at or below background levels, according to results provided to The Detroit News.

The collapse happened in part due to the weight of the “aggregate stored” by Detroit Bulk Storage on the grounds, Masse said in a Dec. 5 letter to the Canadian minister of environment and climate change.

But Detroit Bulk Storage, a sand and gravel storage yard business with a long-term lease on the property, said the aggregate wasn’t responsible for the collapse.

The limestone aggregate had been stored 100 feet away from the waterfront and piled 40 to 50 feet high along about 300 feet of waterfront, said Noel Frye, vice president of Detroit Bulk Storage. Typical storage rules require the load to be stored only 50 feet off the waterfront and no more than 50 feet high, he said. 

The collapse had more to do with high waters and consistent, heavy rain the night before the collapse, Frye said. The company has been in regular contact with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Michigan environmental department, he said.

“We’re complying with any government agency that wants to come down and take a look,” Frye said. “We have a remediation plan. We’re just putting the finishing touches on it.”

That remediation plan will include a new steel wall and dredging in the Detroit River to remove any aggregate that entered the water, Frye said. The dredged material will be placed on the dock to dry and then transported to an appropriate landfill if needed. 

The site used to belong to Detroit Revere Copper and Brass, which during the 1940s handled uranium and other potentially dangerous materials as a subcontractor under the Manhattan Project that developed nuclear weapons. It is just east of historic Fort Wayne and is close to the planned location of the Gordie Howe International Bridge.

From 1943 to 1946, Revere Copper and Brass produced uranium rods at its Detroit plant and during the late 1940s and early 1950s rolled or produced uranium rods, according to U.S. Department of Energy records. Chemicals such as beryllium and thorium were handled on the site, according to government records.

The site was considered to have “residual radiation” until it closed in 1984 and the manufacturing facility demolished.

Energy Department representatives visited the site in September 1989, and a “cursory radiological survey at that time revealed no areas with direct radiation levels above background,” according to a 1990 department report. A 1981 survey by Argonne National Laboratory found “no significant residual contamination in readily accessible areas or equipment.”

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Legacy Management division oversees potentially dangerous properties where nuclear or radioactive materials were stored, particularly if they handled war-related equipment.

In a Thursday letter to the Canadian minister of environment and climate change, Masse said the site is rated “high for contamination” because of the residual materials left on the site. It was based on an undated “Detroit River International Crossing Study.”

Michigan environmental officials rebutted the accusation.

“Federal testing has shown radiation levels at the site were not above background levels following remediation of the property,” department spokesman Nick Assendelft said. “EGLE will aggressively investigate any impact to the public or environment as part of its assessment of the incident.”

Masse called for a joint investigation that includes the International Joint Commission — a body that cooperates on river and lake issues along the U.S.-Canada border — and both national governments.

It is unclear how seriously the Canadian government will take Masse’s request. The New Democratic Party is to the left of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ruling Liberal Party, which has the most seats in Parliament but doesn’t have majority control. 

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, was initially alarmed about the potential environmental risk but seemed satisfied in a series of Thursday tweets that the state was addressing the situation. 

“We will continue monitoring this developing situation closely as protecting our water is a critical priority,” Chang tweeted.

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