River Clean-up in Detroit, Michigan, Attracts Fish, Wildlife, Economic Development

Project Summary Federal Great Lakes restoration funds removed contaminants in a lagoon on the Detroit River, improving the water quality and allowing fish and birds to return. The project also sparked economic development along the restored river.

BEFORE: Oil, grease and hazardous chemicals pollute the Detroit River’s Black Lagoon.

Project Name: Detroit River – Black Lagoon Cleanup

Location: Detroit, Mich.


The Black Lagoon project was the first cleanup completed under the Great Lakes Legacy Act, a federal program established to remove contaminated sediments at toxic hotspots in the Great Lakes. The lagoon lies within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, which supports numerous species of fish and wildlife. The cleanup removed 115,000 cubic yards of toxic sludge from the bottom of the Black Lagoon, which improved water quality and spurred economic development along the Detroit River shoreline. Subsequent work restored wildlife habitat around the Black Lagoon. In 2007, the city of Trenton, Mich., officially changed the name of the lagoon to Ellias Cove in honor of the successful restoration effort.

Project cost: $9 million (funded through the federal Great Lakes Legacy Act).

AFTER: Removing thousands of pounds of pollutants from the lagoon has improved water quality, attracted fish and birds, and sparked economic development—inspiring city officials to rename the water body Ellias Cove.

Resource Challenge Addressed

The Black Lagoon is an inlet in the Detroit River. For decades the oil, grease and hazardous chemicals that industry discharged into the Detroit River settled in the Black Lagoon. The inlet was called the Black Lagoon when the water turned black due to the high concentration of oil and grease in the water and sediments. The lagoon was an ongoing source of pollutants entering the lower Detroit River and western Lake Erie.

Key Partners (public and private)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. The EPA provided 65 percent of the funding for the cleanup; the Michigan DEQ provided the remaining 35 percent.

Types of Jobs Created

  • dredge operators
  • truckers
  • chemists
  • ecologists
  • landscape engineers
  • environmental engineers

Results and Accomplishments

Crews removed 115,000 cubic yards of polluted sludge from the Black Lagoon in 2004 and 2005. The cleanup removed more than 470,000 pounds of contaminants from the lagoon, including 160 pounds of PCBs, 38,000 pounds of lead, 360 pounds of mercury, 300,000 pounds of oil and grease and 140,000 pounds of zinc. The project improved water quality in the lagoon and the lower Detroit River and fish and birds have returned to the lagoon. It also sparked economic development along that stretch of the Detroit River — the city of Trenton plans to develop a marina in the lagoon. Because water in the lagoon is no longer black, the city of Trenton renamed the lagoon Elias Cove.

In 2010, Trenton received $14,286 as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The funds will allow the city to plant aquatic vegetation around the restored Elias Cove, providing critically needed spawning and nursery habitat for native fish species in the Detroit River.

Continued Supoprt from Congress, White House Essential

Federal support paved the way for the successful restoration of Elias Cove. Unfortunately, there are countless communities around the region which continue to struggle with drinking water restrictions, beach closings, fish consumption advisories, depressed property values and other impacts from unhealthy lakes. That is why it is essential for the U.S. Congress and the White House to support federal programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. If we cut funding now, it will only cost more later because all of these projects will only get harder and more expensive the longer we wait.

More About This Project

Originally Published: May 31, 2011