The Big Clean-up
Riverfront site gets a new lease on life
by Jan Schlain
From the east side of the Broadway bridge, a sidewalk winds down into Broadway Park, a peaceful pocket of lawn and trees tucked between the train tracks and the Huron River.
From the bridge’s west side, there’s also a distant view of grass, trees, and the river. But the foreground isn’t nearly as picturesque: an asphalt parking lot, a graffiti-covered garage, and a concrete slab where a building once stood. And instead of an inviting path, the entire property is guarded by a tall chain-link fence.
Parking lots can easily become parks—and at fourteen acres, this bend in the river could be a jewel in the city’s necklace of riverfront refuges. Or they can be redeveloped, filled with homes or businesses where residents or restaurant-goers drink in river views. So much open space, so near downtown, might be worth tens of millions of dollars. Yet the site’s owner, DTE Energy, is in no hurry to sell.
The answer lies beneath. DTE has owned the property since 2001, when it acquired MichCon. The Michigan Consolidated Gas Co. was formed in 1937 by merging smaller utilities, including the Ann Arbor Gas Company. And until the first natural gas pipeline reached Michigan that year, this was Ann Arbor’s gas-manufacturing plant, where workers heated coal in a partial vacuum, collected the flammable gas, and piped it to residents’ homes. The gas lit Ann Arborites’ lights and heated their stoves, but manufacturing it produced noxious byproducts, including carcinogenic coal tar. Some of these wastes were left here, and the land cannot safely be reused until those highly polluted “hot spots” are cleaned up.
And that’s why, more than seventy years after the gas works closed, this prime property sits vacant. But now that’s changing. This month, DTE expects to submit a “response activity plan” to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to clean up hot spots and pollution near the riverbank.
It’s just one step in what promises to be a long and expensive journey. But
with U.S. Representative John Dingell and DTE chairman Gerry Anderson taking a personal interest, the prospects for bringing this bend in the river back to life have never been better.
It was Dingell who got the ball rolling, says Laura Rubin, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council. Dingell and the Wolfpack.
The Wolfpack is a group of sixty business and community leaders organized by the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Office in Ann Arbor and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. Andy Buchsbaum, NWF’s regional executive director, says that “one beautiful fall afternoon,” Dingell invited the Wolfpack down to the Detroit International Wildlife Refuge on the Detroit River. It includes a number of rehabilitated industrial sites, and Dingell wanted the Wolfpack to join him in doing something similarly transformative for the Huron. “He challenged us,” Buchsbaum says.
“I’m not really convinced it was a challenge,” Dingell demurs. But he allows that “nothing in politics gives me greater pleasure” than cleaning up polluted rivers, and he waxes poetic about the flocks of “songbirds ... hawks and owls” that, after years of work, now live in the DIWR. He adds that “DTE and Consumers Power have been wonderful corporate citizens” in cleaning polluted sites, including some that he suspects were even worse than the old gas plant in Ann Arbor.
“So the Wolfpack, National Wildlife Foundation, and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters all came together and said, ‘What kind of thing could we do?’” says Rubin. “We talked about this RiverUp! idea—a river renaissance.” Rubin says the group is working to make it easier for canoeists and kayakers to navigate the river and pedestrians and bicyclists to explore its banks, as well as on “cleaning up the contaminated properties.”
Gerry Anderson, DTE’s chairman and CEO, is a Wolfpack member. He lives near the U-M’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens’ Dow Prairie, whose namesake, Alex Dow, ran DTE back when it was still called Detroit Edison. “Gerry Anderson loves Dow Prairie,”
says Rubin. “He said as they leave this [Broadway] site, he’d like to do something like that here—make it a resource for the community.”
Rubin has been at HRWC for thirteen years, and this is by no means the first time people have talked about restoring the Broadway site. “Before this, every once in awhile, either a U-M faculty member or somebody would talk about ‘Oh, we’d like to do something with that site,’ or the city, during their PROS [Park and Recreation Open Space] planning, [would say] ‘Oh, that would make a great connector path for us,’” she says. ”They were always sort of like … dreaming.”
What makes her hopeful is that this time, she’s seeing sustained movement toward actually doing something. Between the Dingell initiative and the subsequent discussions, “I feel like the cleanup process has really started in earnest and is really moving forward.” But, she adds, “Nobody is going to take the property until the cleanup is done.”
“The cleanup is kind of our next step,” says DTE communication specialist John Austerberry. “A couple of years ago we deconstructed the building. I use that term because that was an alternative to traditional demolition, where actually we ended up recycling ninety-some percent of the material from the building. It took a lot longer.
“Our next step was to develop our plan for cleaning up the site, because we knew, based on the historical use there, and some previous investigation, that there were soils and some sediments along the edge of our property in the river that were impacted or were potentially impacted from the byproducts of the manufactured gas process.
“The primary byproduct of the manufactured gas process is a tar-like material. It consists primarily of hydrocarbon, with some trace amounts of metals such as nickel and chrome. One of the characteristics of this material is that it tends to remain in place. It does not migrate. It does not easily move through the soil … The only impact off-site that we’ve discovered is from ammonia, which is again part of the constituents of this tarry byproduct, and we’ve found ammonia concentrations in groundwater samples exceed the surface water standard for long-term contact by aquatic wildlife.” He adds, “Now that’s groundwater. Surface water samples from the Huron River are well below levels that are dangerous to humans, wildlife, or plant [life].
“Nothing in our investigation and analysis has found that the site, as it exists, presents any human health concerns,” Austerberry stresses, choosing his words carefully. “Now that’s not to say there may not be constituents under the ground that, at certain levels, could be a concern, but that’s why we’re going to remove them.”
Project manager Shayne Wiesemann says that MichCon and now DTE have been looking at the site since the 1980s, and “we have been removing hot spots for a couple of decades. We did a couple of large source removals in the mid-nineties and again in about 2006. We thought we had a good handle on where all the hot spots were, and we have addressed them. When the service center was closed and decommissioned at the end of 2009, we had a good opportunity to go in and do more investigation, and what we found is that there were more of these hot spots.”
Weisemann, too, stresses that the coal tar residues “are highly immobile and underground, so we don’t believe that there is [a health] risk associated with them.” Vickie Katko, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s project manager for the site, concurs that it poses no immediate danger. But that’s only true as long as the soil is undisturbed—if you “dig a little,” Katko says, the level of contamination is “shocking.”
Austerberry says the company has been working with the agency for the last year and a half, and will be submitting a proposal this month “to go in and selectively remove these hot spots next summer.” In addition, says Weisemann, “we are going to be excavating some of the stream bank, because what we believed happened was when the old gas plant was demolished back in the Fifties, it would have been just standard procedure for bulldozers to kind of push that material around, and some of the tars and some of the byproducts may have been pushed up against the stream bank. It looks like some of the shallow sediment, very close to the bank, is contaminated with some of these tars. While we are excavating some of the hot spots on the upland portion of the site, we’re also going to excavate a portion of the stream bank and some of the sediment within the first ten or fifteen feet of the site, to make sure those tars aren’t causing any adverse impacts.”
This time, they won’t be pushing hazardous waste around with bulldozers. Under Michigan environmental law, Weisemann says, DTE is required to prepare a “due care plan.” Given to all employees and contractors who work on the site, it explains what the potential contaminants are and what precautions they should use in dealing with them. That’s also, he says, why “the site is fully fenced and secured”—they don’t want anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing digging or doing anything else “that might make the situation worse before we can come in and do our remediation.”
When they go in to clean up the riverbank and hot spots, “it will all be done with the close oversight of the DEQ,” Weisemann says. ”This is a really tried-and-true approach. Things can always come up, I guess, but we’ve had several meetings with the DEQ to make sure they’re on board with our approach.
“We expect this to be a pretty smooth plan review and implementation.”
The level of cleanup will vary depending on location. “For the upland portion of the site [away from the river], we still envision that being used as an industrial property,” says Weisemann. “We’re just removing hot spots. For along the riverbank, we’re going to take that to an unrestricted residential type of closure, so after our remediation is done, it will be as good as it was prior to MichCon coming in and utilizing the site.
“There is the potential for people to fish, to kayak and canoe. We want to make sure we do a good job.”
The cost to DTE?
“Next year, we are budgeted for two to three million for this project.”
The bill could be higher, says DTE environmental strategies manager Abed Houssari. But Houssari is optimistic that they’ll get there. “I think everything is aligned properly on this project right now,” he says.
“When we developed our cities, we had our backs to the river,” says Rubin. “What we’re trying to do here is reorient the faces of the community to the river, so we’re embracing the beauty and the historical and cultural significance [of the river], and seeing the river as an economic driver.”
Thanks in part to HRWC’s efforts, many now hold an idyllic view of our urban river. On the National Wildlife Federation’s local website, Mayor Hieftje is quoted as saying, “The Huron River is a wonderful place for walking, biking, kayaking, fishing, and other recreation … But we’d like to see it be even more, a place for music and art and even a restaurant facing the river. It is time for our communities to turn their face to the river, our greatest natural feature.”
For the gas plant property, that Pygmalion-type transformation will not happen overnight. While supporters “have a pretty good head of steam,” says Dingell, the cleanup and reuse “is going to be involved.” This year’s work is not the first on the site, and is unlikely to be the last. Asked how long that will take before it’s ready for reuse, Rubin replies, “Optimistically, three years. The range is probably three to ten.”
Also unclear is how it will be used in the future. “There is a lot of talk right now, at a higher level than our level,” Houssari says. “Ultimately, we are probably going to entertain some type of option where this property will be put back for benefit [of] the city. We don’t know the how, we don’t know the detail. All this will have to be worked out.”
“Jerry Anderson’s vision, to [return] this property back to the community for good use, is moving forward,” says Austerberry, the PR guy. “Really right now we are focused on getting our remediation plan approved and doing the work. Beyond that, it is really premature to talk about what the next steps may be.”
But this step, at least, is definitely happening. “We’ll be looking to implement the plan through the fall,” says Weisemann. “I think our schedule, as it sits right now, we will be completing it around November.”
“As with any project,” Houssari predicts, “we are going to have some challenges. But nothing we cannot overcome.”
[Originally published in January, 2012.]