The City of Detroit paused their tear-downs of blighted properties throughout city neighborhoods for the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the pace of those demolitions has been ramping up over the last year and is now near pre-pandemic levels even though questions remain about the safety of the dirt used to backfill these demolition sites. 

From its beginnings, the demolition program has faced a litany of questions about the quality of this backfill dirt and whether Detroiters in the future will pay a price for the lax regulations of today. 

There have been enforcement actions aimed at making these demolition sites safer. The state recently fined the city $24,500 after contractors failed to remove asbestos prior to demolition. Federal inspectors are also requiring the city to test samples from 200 sites where they say dirt may be contaminated.

However, Outlier Media has learned contractors have used dirt from multiple cemeteries in Southeast Michigan to backfill hundreds of sites in Detroit. This revelation was first made public at a Livonia City Council meeting in September 2020 but not previously reported on. 

The Demolition Department is aware that contractors are using cemetery dirt to fill in holes after demolition and acknowledged this dirt has not been tested. Recent research has found high levels of arsenic, a dangerous carcinogen that can cause a range of health issues, as well as other metals and bacteria in the groundwater near Michigan cemeteries. 

Since 2019, contractors have used cemetery dirt at 342 sites in Detroit, the Demolition Department told Outlier. 

In an email to Outlier, Demolition Department spokesperson Ryan Foster said the city has approved cemetery dirt as backfill material because it believes it to be safe. 

“Chemical compounds are going to decay in place and remain unmoved if there’s no water to seep into caskets and move it around,” she said. “In Detroit, where we don’t have a high water table and do have predominantly clay soil that inhibits the migration of contaminants, the risk is considered low.”

The Demolition Department separates backfill sources into three categories, according to protocols the department shared with Outlier. Only one category, which include industrial and high-risk agricultural sites, requires testing. “Residential” sources don’t require any testing but account for the majority of the backfill dirt in Detroit. Cemetery dirt is considered a residential source.

Foster said residential sources go through a “desktop review” by the backfill program manager that includes “a records search of past land use and any other documentation that might indicate the past uses of the site.”

“The ‘residential’ designation says nothing about where that material actually came from, or whether it’s safe,” said Michael Koscielniak, an assistant professor of geology and geography at Eastern Michigan University who has extensively studied demolition in Detroit. 

Nicholas Schroeck, an environmental law professor at University of Detroit Mercy, said the only way to know for sure if cemetery and other kinds of dirt is safe is by testing it. But the city rarely does.

“The city uses fill dirt from all kinds of locations that are ‘clean,’ but there’s very minimal sampling done,” he said. 

The city relies largely on demolition contractors to determine whether backfill dirt is contaminated. These Demolition contractors aren’t required to test the dirt they use before certifying it as safe. 

“Statewide, not just in [Detroit’s] Demolition Program, environmental contractors certify that soil hasn’t been contaminated, is free of debris and was transported directly from the source to the fill site,” Foster said. 

The city only requires contractors to test soil when a department employee spots something wrong during an inspection, like an unusual odor or color, or if a potential contamination is spotted by AKT Peerless, a third-party environmental contractor that has worked with the city since 2018 and developed the protocols around assessing backfill dirt. 

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Mayor Mike Duggan has made demolition a cornerstone of his neighborhood revitalization strategy. Since 2014, the city has demolished 20,000 buildings and is in the process of demolishing another 8,000 as part of a $250 million anti-blight initiative called Proposal N. In May, it demolished 252 homes. 

Demolition was previously overseen jointly by the Detroit Building Authority and Detroit Land Bank Authority, where it faced a string of scandals

The Duggan administration moved the program fully under city oversight as part of a push for legitimacy in promoting Proposal N. 

An Auditor General report from 2019 found that contractors “did not provide proper documentation for landfill and backfill receipts” between 2014 and 2018, among many other issues. 

Koscielniak said the unprecedented number of demolitions has made backfill dirt a commodity, forcing contractors to acquire dirt from wherever they could find it. And the city was incentivized to maintain the pace of tear-downs, which meant it did not look deeply into questionable sources.

“Everything was skewed towards approval and accelerating the process,” Koscielniak said. “So nobody at the city is going to say the dirt might be poisonous because that’s a wrench, that’s going to gum it up.”

Koscielniak is doubtful much has changed now that the program is city-led.

“I think there’s likely even less oversight now that it’s a city department,” Koscielniak said. “When the program was working with the Hardest Hit Fund, it was a fiduciary for federal dollars. It was responsible to the state, which was responsible to the U.S. Treasury Department.” 

Foster insisted the Demolition Department has instituted several changes to backfill protocol since the demolition program became a city-led effort. A department employee observes dirt at every site as it is filled, a compliance team validates that material came from an approved source, and a data team tracks the amount of material at each backfill source. 

But the city continues to rely on contractors to source and assess backfill dirt, remaining largely ignorant of what is in the dirt or whether it’s safe. 

Outlier reached out to numerous demolition contractors for the city but either got no response or had our questions referred to the city. 

Ashley Atkinson, executive director of Keep Growing Detroit, a nonprofit that supports gardening in Detroit, said overall there’s “nowhere near the robustness of testing needed.” 

Atkinson said the practices of the demolition program have created an unsafe environment across the city.

“For years the city hired these big companies, often from outside the city, who could do the work fast and cheaply but didn’t care about the impact on residents,” she said.

Lead in soil has been a persistent problem in Detroit that’s likely contributed to high levels of lead contamination in children. 

Those enrolled in the nonprofit’s Garden Resource Program get one free soil test for lead and additional tests — at cost. (It also has lead testing instructions on its website.) Keep Growing Detroit then helps gardeners develop a plan if lead is found. 

Keep Growing Detroit typically recommends that homeowners with lead in the soil around their house plant a garden on raised beds or somewhere else entirely. “They should grow a layer of grass and try to have no contact with the soil,” Atkinson said.

Reach AARON MONDRY at aaron@outliermedia.org or 313-403-7221. Reach freelance reporter KAYLEIGH LICKLITER at krlickliter@gmail.com. This article appears in today’s issue of The Dig, Outlier Media’s weekly newsletter on housing and real estate. Click here to sign up to receive it.