LeDuff: Why does Detroit need tons of dirt for a cancelled blight program?

May 28, 2020, 11:51 PM by  Charlie LeDuff

As the state's Covid-19 response stumbles along, it's important to remember that the grubby business of municipal politics creeps along in Detroit.

Detroit City Hall is shopping for a mountain of dirt. So much dirt, an earthen highway could be built across the Detroit River to downtown Windsor. 

Deadline Detroit has obtained a “request for proposal” (RFP) issued by Detroit in February, asking demolition contractors to provide a price for delivering at least 100,000 tons of dirt a year for three years to be used in the city's blight program. The blight program has been scandal-plagued since its 2014 birth, leading to two long- running – and ongoing – federal grand jury investigations.

But why is the city is even still considering purchasing so much dirt when the mayor announced earlier this month that demolition is dead, and its $72-million budget was being redirected to plug other gaping budget shortfalls?

Despite the coronavirus outbreak and its economic havoc on city finances, the massive dirt contracts is very much alive, the mayor's office confirms, stressing to say that it is not a done deal.

“The [bid] is part of a process to evaluate all options for the most environmentally and financially sound method to handle back fill,” writes John Roach, a spokesman for Mayor Mike Duggan. “No decision has been made whether even to use this option and no awardee has been selected.”

A past home demolition site in Detroit. (Photo: Violet Ikonomova)

Roach went on to say that there haven't been conversations with any federal agency over the dirt.

As Duggan said May 5: “We're going to cancel the demolition, use that demolition money to cover the shortfall in essential operations.”

But the next day, officials from the Building Authority, Contracting and Procurement Office had meetings with contractors over details on the mountain of dirt known as backfill. 

It is a matter of public record, and reported many times at this news site, that records for backfill in many cases do not exist -- even though the Treasury department paid for it. And thus the grand jury investigations.

The federal government had been testing soil used to fill 14,000 demolition sites paid for with federal dollars to determine if contaminated materials were used. I initially reported that the results of the tests were pending. But the mayor's office points out that a report by the feds in March said they "did not detect any contaminants in any of the soil it tested."

Nonetheless, aides to three city council members, who asked that their names not be used, said they were surprised to learn of the bid requests for soil. Request for comment from the U.S. Treasury Department and the FBI were declined.  

It's an election year, after all. And with all Detroit has been through, let's hope the dirt is not dirty.

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