In a strange incident, sometime over the holiday weekend, a site that was involved in the 1940’s Manhattan Project (development of atomic weapons), has partially collapses into the Detroit River.
No one knows when the dump occurred, but the shoreline property has been listed by the U.S. Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency as a contaminated site due to its use of uranium and other dangerous chemicals during manufacturing in the 40’s and 50’s.
However, the real problem involves the sediment displacement that occurred when piles of gravel and aggregates were dumped into the river. Experts warn that such an event could seriously harm all sorts of life.
The Windsor Star reported on the incident, noting near the end of the article that the site itself was deemed safe in 1980:
The riverbank apparently collapsed under the weight of large aggregate piles stored at the site by Detroit Bulk Storage which has a long-term lease on the property for such use. The company is operated by the son of the owner of Windsor-based aggregate company Southwestern Sales.
The collapsed property is widely known as the former Revere Copper and Brass site which over many decades has been engaged in repeated controversy regarding its fate, safety and who is responsible for cleanup.
The property sits next door to the east of historical Fort Wayne in southwest Detroit and a stone’s throw from the planned location across the river of the Gordie Howe International Bridge. Across the river in Windsor is LaFarge Canada and Sterling Fuels.
There are uranium and radiation concerns on the site because Revere Copper in the 1940s was subcontracted under the Manhattan Project — the race to build the world’s first atomic bomb.
The company into the 1950s continued to roll or construct uranium rods which were used in the nuclear bomb’s development.
The plant was eventually closed in 1984, abandoned and then torn down in 1989. The site’s ownership has changed hands, but largely been left vacant until leased recently by Detroit Bulk Storage.
The property’s shoreline crumbled into the water last week at some point during the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday weekend, so the spill initially remained unknown to many responsible state and federal environmental regulatory agencies.
“Any time the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy learns of incidents such as the one at the Revere Copper site in Detroit, staff is greatly concerned about the impact on water quality and the public,” Nick Assendelft, spokesman for the state’s environmental regulatory agency, said on Wednesday nearly a week after the incident.
“EGLE staff will evaluate what is known about the conditions onsite, look into whether there are any environmental concerns, and determine what, if any, obligations the property’s owner has, before we decide our next steps.”
The owner of Detroit Bulk Storage, Noel Frye, did not return a message Wednesday, but workers could easily be seen from Windsor’s west end pushing aggregate around with backhoes near the collapsed section of the shoreline, which partially remained sagging and submerged under water.
The city of Detroit has drinking water intake lines nearby downriver, but on the Canadian side the closest water intake lines that may be impacted by the spill are quite a distance away in Amherstburg.
The Wall Street Journal a half dozen years ago listed the Revere Copper site as one of America’s forgotten nuclear legacy “waste lands.”
It referenced a 2011 evaluation study by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the property which concluded the “potential exists for significant residual radiation.”
Derek Coronado of Windsor’s Citizen’s Environment Alliance noted how along with uranium, historical records for the Revere Copper site also show concern for dangerous chemicals beryllium and thorium.
Aside from the dangers of what’s in the property’s soil that may get washed into the river, a bigger issue may involve sediment on the bottom of the Detroit River. Sediment in that area is loaded with a cocktail of chemicals that include mercury, PCBs and PAHs which all have negative health implications for humans, wildlife and the water, he said.
The sediment, like the soil of the Revere Copper site, may generally be considered safe if left undisturbed. But the fact a ton of aggregate just fell off the shore into the water will disperse the sediment in many directions, Coronado said.
“It’s a concern at what level those three chemicals were on site before this happened and what degree they have gone in the river,” he said.
“But the volume of stuff (aggregate) that went into the river would cause resettlement of the contaminated sediment which is really not good. Moving that stuff around will spread contamination and cause greater destruction to what’s in the water.”
Coronado hopes for required remediation on the site.
“You are operating on a shoreline and it collapses into the river,” he said. “I don’t know how this will play out on enforcement. I would hope given how much money and work has gone into Detroit River remediation there might be enforcement action on this.”
Several officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contacted Wednesday were not aware of what had occurred regarding the shoreline collapse In Detroit of the contaminated site until informed by the Star.
The agency indicated responsibility for the former Revere Copper site belongs with the U.S. Department of Energy which was tasked decades ago with oversight of dangerous properties that feature nuclear or radiation histories across the U.S. — especially those connected with war-related equipment.
There are roughly 500 such properties — many connected with the Manhattan Project which the department tracks, said Padraic Benson, spokesman for U.S. energy department’s office of legacy management.
Such sites get lumped under what’s known as the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP).
Revere Copper last underwent a FUSRAP study in 1980 which determined there “there was little or no potential for radiological exposure,” he said.
Benson confirmed the history of the company working on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s as a subcontractor.
Also made aware of the incident were officials from the Windsor-Detroit Bridge Authority which is in the midst of overseeing construction for the new Gordie Howe International Bridge.
The former Revere Copper site was actually listed years ago as potential crossing point for the Howe bridge, but eventually rejected because of the environmental risk.
A WDBA spokesman on Wednesday said aggregate being stored by Detroit Bulk Storage that fell into the river was not connected to the Howe bridge project.
“WDBA is aware of the spill of aggregate from a marine facility into the Detroit River,” said WDBA’s Mark Butler. “We are committed to the highest levels of environmental protection and are working with the appropriate authorities to investigate the matter.”