COVID-19 relief bill tainted with 'downright dangerous' provision for hazardous material on Ambassador Bridge


Pollution and smokestacks in Southwest Detroit. - STEVE NEAVLING
  • Steve Neavling
  • Pollution and smokestacks in Southwest Detroit.

Snuck into Michigan’s COVID-19 relief package is a potentially dangerous provision that would allow trucks to transport hazardous and toxic material across the Ambassador Bridge.

Despite strong opposition from environmentalists, Detroiters, and some Democrats, the measure passed the state House 97-5 on Monday morning, and the state Senate approved the bill 35-2.

Before the vote Friday, state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, told colleagues that the bill is “downright dangerous,” violates federal law, and includes “harmful boilerplate language ordering the Michigan Department of Transportation to ignore facts (and) ignore my community” about the dangers of hauling hazardous material across “the antiquated, 91-year-old” bridge.

“Three schools and two public parks lie within the vicinity of the bridge and plaza, which is surrounded by a densely populated neighborhood where 40% of the residents are children,” Chang said. “Let’s be clear that in addition to the residents in my district, the danger posed by this boilerplate language affects all Michiganders whose drinking water comes from the Detroit River.”

The bill would allow for “flammable gases,” “poisonous gases,” “spontaneously combustible materials,” “dangerous when wet materials,” “poisonous materials” and “corrosive materials” to be transported across the bridge.

The Sierra Club lambasted lawmakers for playing “dirty politics” by including the provision in a bill intended to help people impacted by COVID-19.

“By sneaking in this dangerous language, legislators are threatening the health of Michiganders and our Great Lakes drinking water,” Justin Onwenu, Sierra Club’s environmental justice organizer, said. “Special interest language that has absolutely nothing to do with COVID-19 relief should be taken out immediately.”

The relief package is now headed to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk. It’s unclear whether she plans to sign the bill with the language intact. Her office did not respond to Metro Times’ questions for comment.

Hazardous materials are permitted to cross the international border via the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry and more modern bridges. Allowing hazardous materials to cross the Ambassador bridge “could be catastrophic” because it’s old, isn’t sufficiently inspected, and lacks proper technology and safety protocols, the Sierra Club said.

“To include a provision that threatens the lives of Michiganders in a bill that is supposed to save lives during a pandemic is unconscionable,” Tim Minotas, Sierra Club’s legislative and political coordinator, said.

The provision is just the latest example of state leaders tolerating environmental hazards in communities where people of color live. Metro Times launched a series this year about environmental racism, including a story about how such communities have become dumping grounds for hazardous material.

Other lawmakers to speak out about the provision are Reps. Abraham Aiyash, D-Detroit; Alex Garza, D-Taylor; and Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn.

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