Hazmat proposal for Ambassador Bridge raises questions

  • Public feedback is open until Monday on a proposal allowing hazardous materials on the Ambassador Bridge.
  • Opposition highlights the upcoming Gordie Howe Bridge as a safer alternative for HAZMAT transport.
  • Debate focuses on community risks, emergency response capabilities and the potential permanence of the change.

Community members have until Monday to comment on a proposal to allow additional classes of hazardous materials on the privately owned Ambassador Bridge. 

The city and Detroit International Bridge Company previously said that allowing HAZMAT on the bridge would increase roadway safety by reducing the number of vehicle miles traveled by trucks carrying class 3 and class 8 hazardous substances. 

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Since the closing of the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry last September, these vehicles have used the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron, roughly 60 miles from Detroit.

Class 3 materials include flammable and combustible liquids such as gasoline, and Class 8 materials include corrosives like lead-acid batteries and degreasers.

A final decision isn’t expected until May 2025. The new Gordie Howe International Bridge opens in the fall of that year, roughly two miles from the Ambassador. 

Hubbard Richard residents say decision-makers aren’t adequately accounting for risks from the proposal.

“I feel like there are too many questions for MDOT (Michigan Department of Transportation) to consider this responsibly,” Sam Butler, the Hubbard Richard Resident Association president, told Planet Detroit. He raised concerns about intermingling car and truck traffic on the bridge and in the tight turns of the customs plaza, within twenty feet of homes. 

However, several logistics companies and trade organizations representatives spoke favorably about the proposal at a March 20 public hearing.  Alan Flint, a Metro Detroit truck driver hauling hazardous materials for eight years, frequently makes a short trip across the Ambassador to pick up paint products before driving 200 miles back via the Blue Water Bridge. 

Flint said that he had been hit by another truck while waiting in line at the Blue Water, an accident that resulted in a fatality.

“For me, it would be a night and day difference safety-wise to go across the Ambassador,” he said in a public hearing on March 20.  

Planet Detroit reported in January that more than 30 elected officials, including Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, have expressed their support for the plan.

While a change to HAZMAT rules could benefit drivers like Flint, several residents said the imminent opening of the Gordie Howe Bridge, which will support hazardous materials transport, undermines this argument.

“I can’t believe we’re actually talking about this issue with the state-of-the-art Gordie Howe Bridge opening soon,” Hubbard Richard Jennifer Giroux said during the March hearing. “It’s equipped to handle such transport (and) it minimizes risk to the community.”

Butler also questioned the need for the change with the Gordie Howe Bridge, which will support hazardous material transport, opening so soon.

“Our assumption is that if this goes through, it will become a permanent change that we’re stuck with,” Butler said.

When asked if an allowance for hazardous materials on the Ambassador Bridge would be permanent, MDOT spokesperson Jeff Cranson told Planet Detroit it was “unknown whether a recommendation would come with conditions.”

U.S. Rep Rashida Tlaib steps into bridge safety debate

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib criticized the plan to lift restrictions on hazardous materials transport at the hearing, citing a study by Factor, a HAZMAT consulting firm, which found minimal statewide risk change but significant risks to sensitive populations.

She said MDOT needed to deny the request because federal law requires that the change improves public safety.

“That’s the legal standard that MDOT must follow,” Tlaib said. “It’s not optional. A Hazmat designation must enhance public safety. They can’t harm public safety. They can’t even have a neutral effect.”

Several residents questioned the usefulness of the Factor study because it failed to consider the Gordie Howe Bridge as a potential route for HAZMAT or account for changes included in the community agreement signed by the Hubbard Richard Resident Association and DIBC in October 2023.

Butler said residents had agreed to changes allowing cars and trucks to intermingle in the customs plaza. This would increase throughput rates, which could cut down on idling and emissions.

However, the month after the agreement was signed, the bridge company released its plan for HAZMAT, which included a proposal for vehicles to escort trucks carrying hazardous materials that could slow traffic on the bridge and in the customs plaza.

Butler questioned how the public was even supposed to comment on the proposal for escorts without more information on where they would be stationed and how they would affect throughput times.

In a letter to MDOT, Gregg Ward, former president of the Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry and a frequent critic of the bridge company, called attention to unanswered questions about escort vehicles, including things like where vehicles with hazardous materials would be staged and the distance between these areas and homes.  

In response to Planet Detroit, MDOT suggested details of the escort plan would be worked out if the HAZMAT proposal were adopted.

 “That is something that would need to be investigated if the restrictions are changed.”, Cranson said.

Risk for public parks and lingering questions over emergency response

Giroux, called attention to the presence of nearby parks during the public hearing. Riverside Park sits directly under the bridge. The Detroit Riverwalk and Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park, set to open in 2025, are also nearby.

State Senators Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) and Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) raised the same issue in a December letter to MDOT. They noted the special risk that hazardous materials could pose in “a densely populated neighborhood, where 40 percent of the residents are children.”

The Factor study also identified specific problems with fighting fire on the 93-year-old Ambassador Bridge that could increase local risks. These include a fire suppression system that runs parallel to the roadway, which a vehicle crash could damage, and the need for aqueous foam from local fire stations to put out fires involving class 3 substances like gasoline.  The report said congestion could delay this response.

In a statement to Planet Detroit, DIBC Vice President Kenneth Dobson said the bridge was equipped to handle hazardous materials and that “the fire suppression system on the Ambassador Bridge meets all applicable codes by the City of Detroit Fire Department and the City of Windsor Fire and Rescue Services.”

MDOT is accepting public comment on this issue until March 31. Comments can be submitted online by email to Monica Hamsa, public involvement and hearings specialist, at [email protected], or by letter to Monica Hamsa, MDOT Environmental Services Section, 425 West Ottawa St., P.O. Box 30050, Lansing, MI 48909.

This article first appeared on Planet Detroit and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.



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