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Great Lakes Moment: Solving the contaminated sediment remediation funding puzzle

Great Lakes Moment: Solving the contaminated sediment remediation funding puzzle
May 1, 2023 John Hartig

Great Lakes Moment is a monthly column written by Great Lakes Now Contributor John Hartig. Publishing the author’s views and assertions does not represent endorsement by Great Lakes Now or Detroit Public Television.


For over a century, vast amounts of toxic contaminants were discharged by industries into the Detroit and Rouge Rivers. Many of these contaminants now reside in river-bottom sediments and are often referred to as “legacy pollution.”

Although you cannot see or smell these contaminants, they contribute to health advisories for fish consumption, are toxic to invertebrates and other aquatic life, can result in restrictions on dredging for navigational purposes and can limit future shoreline development. Michigan has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to remediate these contaminated sediments, but this will not occur unless non-federal partners can meet match funding requirements.

Current state of sediment contamination

The recent State of the Strait Report found that Michigan faces enormous challenges with the need to remediate up to 5.1 million m3 of contaminated sediment on the U.S. side of the Detroit River and an estimated 350,000 m3 of contaminated sediment in the lower Rouge River mainstem. No additional contaminated sediment remediation is needed on the Canadian side of the Detroit River.

Estimated cost of sediment remediation

For the U.S. side of the Detroit River and the lower Rouge River, the good news is that the federal Great Lakes Legacy Act can fund up to 65% of the cost. The bad news is that there is no magic pot of money to make the nonfederal match requirement.

For example, if there are no known potentially responsible industries and the contaminated sediment area is considered an orphan site, then the Great Lakes Legacy Act will provide 65% of the cost and the remaining must come from non-federal sponsors like the state, a county, a city or other non-federal entity.

In general, if there is a willing industrial partner, then the cost share is often 50% federal and 50% from industry or industries with some known potential liability for the site. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Great Lakes National Program Office typically determines the appropriate cost share for industrial partners.

For the Detroit River, U.S. EPA and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) staff have estimated a total sediment remediation project cost of over $900 million. Of that total project cost, they are hopeful that over $580 million will be covered by the U.S. EPA through the Great Lakes Legacy Act and $245 million will be covered by industrial partners. That leaves approximately $75 million needed to cover all the likely orphan sites in the Detroit River.

For the Rouge River, U.S. EPA and Michigan EGLE staff have estimated a total project cost of over $470 million. Of that total, they are hopeful that over $254 million will be covered through the Great Lakes Legacy Act and $200 million will be covered by industrial partners.

A consortium of industrial partners is already meeting to complete mapping out the severity and extent of sediment contamination in the lower Rouge River mainstem and explore collaborative funding to make the non-federal match requirements. That leaves approximately $25 million needed to cover all the likely orphan sites in the Rouge River.

Therefore, the State of Michigan would need approximately $100 million to be able to provide the 35% cost share for the known orphan sites in the Detroit and Rouge Rivers. These cost estimates may increase or decrease significantly as more information is gathered.

Collaborative funding

Minnesota provides a good example of using state funds to match Great Lakes Legacy Act funds for sediment remediation. In 2008, Minnesota’s voters passed the Clean Water, Land, and Legacy Amendment to the Minnesota Constitution to protect drinking water, protect and restore habitats, preserve arts and culture, support parks and trails and protect and restore surface and groundwater.

During 2010-2018, over $19 million in Minnesota Water, Land, and Legacy funding was used to help make a match on contaminated sediment remediation in the St. Louis River Area of Concern in Duluth.

In 1998, Michigan voters authorized the state to borrow $675 million for the Clean Michigan Initiative. This initiative helped clean up and redevelop contaminated sites, clean up contaminated sediments in rivers and lakes, protect and improve water quality, prevent pollution, abate lead contamination, reclaim and revitalize community waterfronts, and enhance recreational opportunities.

A good example of the benefits of the Clean Michigan Initiative was the cleanup of the former Black Lagoon on the Detroit River’s Trenton Channel. In 2004 and 2005, the U.S. EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality removed 88,000 cubic meters of severely contaminated sediment from Black Lagoon at a cost of $9.3 million. Sixty-five percent of the funds came from the Great Lakes Legacy Act and 35% from the Clean Michigan Initiative. It was the first fully funded project of the Great Lakes Legacy Act in the Great Lakes and was considered a major success in removing environmental blight from the Downriver area.

Upon completion of this project, the Black Lagoon was renamed Ellias Cove in honor of the family who donated the adjacent land to Trenton which became Meyer-Ellias Park.

However, as funds in the Clean Michigan Initiative were depleted and no new funding was obtained, it lost its effectiveness.

In 2019, the Renew Michigan fund was created within the Michigan Department of Treasury to promote the cleanup of contaminated sites, waste management, and recycling. Initially, it received $69 million.

A good example of how the Renew Michigan fund has helped make the match requirements on contaminated sediment remediation projects in the Detroit River is the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park under construction on the Detroit Riverwalk. The Detroit Riverfront Conservancy has received a $1 million grant from Renew Michigan fund to help make match on a nearly $30 million project to remediate contaminated sediment, restore habitats, and create a water garden that will be the centerpiece of the park.

U.S. EPA is providing about $19 million through the Great Lakes Legacy Act and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The balance of the funds is being provided by the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, with $1 million being provided by the Renew Michigan fund. This Renew Michigan funding was essential in realizing the vision of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Centennial Park.

However, the Renew Michigan fund is not adequately funded to meet the estimated $100 million non-federal match requirements for the remaining sediment remediation in both the Detroit and Rouge Rivers.

One way of doing this in Michigan would be to secure a “special appropriation” for Michigan EGLE to help make the necessary match on this much-needed contaminated sediment remediation. As of January, Michigan was estimated to have a $9 billion surplus.

State environmental officials are ready and willing to work with all partners who are willing to step up with match money to clean up the rivers.

“The Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy has a long history with working with the U.S. EPA on contaminated sediment cleanups and is currently working with this agency on the search for all possible partners, including industrial, governmental, and nongovernmental organizations to take advantage of these funds,” said Michael Alexander, Environmental Manager at Michigan EGLE. “If lawmakers decide to prioritize our tax dollars for this purpose, we are ready to continue this partnership to ensure these funds are invested to bring about the most cost efficient and environmentally appropriate cleanups for the Detroit and Rouge Rivers Great Lakes Areas of Concern.”

Michigan State Senator Stephanie Chang, District 3 is advocating for this funding and said:

“Cleaning up the Detroit and Rouge Rivers must be a priority. Water is life, and our communities are deeply connected to our rivers. We have a great opportunity in this moment to provide matching state funds to remediate the sediment in our precious rivers and utilize Great Lakes Legacy Act federal funding. I’m hopeful that the state can step up to help make this happen for the good of our environment and public health.”

Clearly, there must be a sense of urgency to raise the non-federal match dollars because there are only about four to five years left of federal Great Lakes Legacy Act funding. If this window of opportunity is missed, there is no guarantee that comparable federal money will be available in the future. This is a long-standing problem in our region, and we have a once-in-a-century opportunity to address it for both present and future generations.

John Hartig is a board member at the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy. He serves as a Visiting Scholar at the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research and has written numerous books and publications on the environment and the Great Lakes. Hartig also helped create the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, where he worked for 14 years as the refuge manager.


Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Great Lakes Moment: Decreasing Great Lakes ice cover has consequences

Great Lakes Moment: The event that saved Humbug Marsh


Featured image: Contaminated sediment remediation in the upper Detroit River off the former Uniroyal site. (Photo courtesy of Detroit Riverfront Conservancy)

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