Lawsuit seeks to save trees, protect residents at contaminated AB Ford Park in Detroit

Three Detroit residents filed a lawsuit against the city this week in hopes of halting a controversial plan to remove more than 250 trees from AB Ford Park and cover the contaminated park in two feet of new soil.

The lawsuit, filed in Wayne County Circuit Court on Monday, alleges the city violated the Michigan Environmental Protect Act and is endangering residents by exposing them to toxic pollutants.

The residents — Terry Swafford, Brenda Gail Watson, and Emma Miller — are seeking “protection of the air, water, and other natural resources and the public trust in these resources from pollution, impairment, or destruction,” according to a lawsuit filed by their lawyer Lisa Walinske of the Detroit East Community Law Center.

Walinske tells Metro Times that she plans to file an emergency preliminary injunction later this week to stop the work until the city pulls the proper permits and provides sufficient evidence through scientific tests that its proposed solution won’t endanger residents.

City officials defended their plan, saying it is based on the recommendations of environmental experts.

“The City has a legal obligation to remediate this soil now that testing has shown that it has contamination,” Detroit corporation counsel Conrad Mallett told Metro Times in a statement. “The approach the city is taking on behalf of residents that live near and use AB Ford Park is based on the recommendation of environmental experts. We intend to respond vigorously to this complaint so this important work is not unnecessarily delayed.”

In late February, the city announced that it was closing the waterfront park in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood to begin removing the trees, some of which are more than 100 years old and are used by bald eagles and other wildlife.

The city insists the trees won’t survive after crews cover the 32-acre park in two feet of fresh soil.

The plan comes nearly two years after environmental testing uncovered excessive levels of arsenic, mercury, lead, barium, cadmium, copper, zinc, volatile organic compounds, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the soil.

Despite this, the city kept a large portion of the park open to the public without revealing the findings. The test results weren’t disclosed until after Metro Times raised questions about why the city hadn’t been more transparent about the findings.

Despite increasing concerns about the park, the Detroit City Council unanimously approved the renovation plan on Tuesday.

The lawsuit also alleges the city’s plan will increase pollution in the neighborhood because an average of 20 to 30 heavy trucks will trudge through nearby streets every day from March to September to cover the park in new soil.

In addition, the lawsuit claims the city’s plan will destroy habitat, cause soil erosion, and increase the risks of floods because the additional soil will raise the level of the river’s edge, blocking stormwater runoff.

The city “is not taking sufficient remediation steps to ensure that the soil contamination does not harm the visitors to the park, does not harm the adjoining waterway and does not have a negative environmental effect on the Park’s ecosystem,” the lawsuit states.

In effect, the city’s plan to cover the contaminated soil in even more dirt will “encapsulate toxic pollutants” at the edge of the Detroit River without remediating the contamination, the lawsuit alleges. Since the park is in a designated floodplain, excessive rain could cause the toxic pollutants to spread.

The lawsuit also raises concerns about a large mound of “toxic soil” at the park’s entrance that is across the streets from homes. The dirt was dumped there during previous renovations, and the contamination is spreading “with each passing breeze.”

After the remediation, the city plans to include walkways, a playground, basketball court, fitness and picnic areas, tennis and pickleball courts, a fishing node, beach, and waterfront plaza.

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