The Detroit River in Southwest Detroit.
Detroit City Council unanimously approved a new ordinance aimed at protecting the Detroit River from polluters.
The Detroit River Protection Ordinance was created after a dock collapsed and spilled contaminated soil
into the Detroit River in southwest Detroit in November 2019. The company responsible for the collapse, Detroit Bulk Storage, had been illegally stockpiling large mounds of gravel along the river without a permit.
The ordinance is designed to protect drinking water sources and hold unscrupulous polluters accountable.
“This legislation is a step forward in rectifying Detroit’s environmental justice inequities,” Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López said in a statement. “Detroiters deserve the right to play along their riverfront and drink from its waters without fear for their health or safety. The Detroit River Protection ordinance will ensure that generations to come have the same rights.”
Supporters of the ordinance said the measure is critical to prevent another collapse.
“For better and for worse, Michigan is a state that’s been shaped and defined by water,” Justin Onwenu, a Detroiter and community organizer who helped write and advocate for the ordinance, said. "We have a duty to protect our Great Lakes and drinking water sources like the Detroit River; this legislation does exactly that. I couldn’t be more excited to see this legislation pass because Michiganders absolutely deserve to know that our water is being protected.”
The legislation was drafted by a coalition of residents and activists, including the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, Sierra Club, Michigan Environmental Justice Center, Southwest Community Benefits Coalition, Michigan Environmental Council, Detroit Mercy Environmental Law Center, and dozens of others.
The ordinance, which goes into effect in July 2022, will increase oversight and accountability for businesses along the river by requiring them to maintain their properties, conduct environmental assessments of their land, and store material at least 150 feet from the shore. It also establishes penalties and enforcement actions and requires emergency management protocols in the event of contamination.
Under the ordinance, the city will be required to conduct regular inspections of companies operating along the river.
The ordinance also will strengthen emergency response protocols in the event of another spill. When the dock collapsed two days before Thanksgiving, the public was unaware of what happened until The Windsor Star in Canada reported
on the incident nine days later.
The new ordinance requires owners and operators of riverfront property to notify authorities in the event of a major structural failure.
“When the collapse happened, Detroiters were frustrated because we use the River for recreation, for fishing, and for so many other important activities, Eradajere Oleita, Detroit organizer with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, said. “This is a great day for Detroiters because this legislation will now allow us to fully know what’s going on along our Riverfront.”
The ordinance goes a long way protecting the Detroit River, supporters said.
"The Detroit River is the City's most valuable asset and Detroiters deserve a riverfront that is pristine,” Nick Leonard, director with Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, said. “For generations to come, this ordinance will ensure that our Detroit River is protected from contaminated properties that still exist along the waterfront.”
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