LeDuff: Detroit Poisoned by Invisible Ooze; Government Neglects a Prime Suspect

February 13, 2020, 11:11 PM by  Charlie LeDuff

Madison Heights has its green ooze. Parts of Detroit are choking on an invisible ooze – airborne asbestos and lead particles released from demolition activity and toxic materials dumped in the city's neighborhoods.

And now the city administration, incompetent and complicit, may be on the hook for payback.

Officials from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) tell Deadline Detroit that it is preparing a demand letter to the city for evidence as to why it allowed a preferred demolition contractor to tear down an abandoned apartment block near Davison and Woodward last spring without removing an estimated 150,000 square feet of asbestos. The job was paid with nearly $600,000 in HUD money.

Screen shot from video of demolition.

“The city has failed to offer a reasonable explanation and have yet to provide evidence so far,” said Michael Polsinelli, HUD's Detroit field office director. “If they cannot, they will have to repay the money from non-federal sources. We have begun drafting that letter.”

If the city does not offer a satisfactory response, this could end up being the first time HUD demands repayment of federal block grant monies in connection with demolition in the city. And it could not come at a worse time for Mayor Mike Duggan as he looks to reintroduce a failed initiative to borrow $250 million for demolition in his upcoming State of the City address.

Duggan's once-ballyhooed demolition program has had its problems: the subject of two grand jury investigations, once shut down by the U.S. Treasury Department for billing irregularities, and the subject of an federal environmental probe about the origins of material used to fill demolition holes.

The contractor – Gayanga Co. – won the job to demolish 31 Woodland for $506,523. That included first removing the asbestos and then demolishing the remainder of the 32,000-square-foot building and disposing of it at an appropriate landfill.

Video of the demolition shows clouds of mist, possibly containing asbestos, drifting off the site. Neighborhood residents said they were never informed of the hazard, a violation of the consent agreement. (A city appeals board cleared Gayanga of violations stemming from the demolition and ruled it could continue to receive city contracts.)

Pick up the pace

Emails obtained by Deadline Detroit under the Freedom of Information Act show that city officials approached the contractor in April and asked for the project to go faster to meet spending deadlines for the HUD money.

The mayor was kept in the loop about that specific property, according to the emails. Duggan has in the past held the company up as a model of minority-owned business in Detroit.

Around the time of the conversation with the city about speeding up the demolition timeline, the contractor commissioned his own study, which showed the building was unsafe to enter. Under the law, asbestos does not have to be removed in portions of buildings that are deemed unsafe.

The city engineering department gave no authorization, and yet the city bean counters signed a change to the contract to allow this. Building authority director Tyrone Clifton later said the job was done appropriately, and took no further action.

The federal government disagrees.

Reached by telephone, Brian McKinney,  owner of Gayanga Co. said he has yet to be contacted by any government official, and is unsure who will repay the federal government, should it come to that.

Unlawful debris drop

A February 2020 photo of the construction debris.

In other ooze news, the city has filed a nuisance lawsuit against suburban-based demolition contractor Smalley Construction for illegally dumping a huge pile of demolition debris in a Detroit neighborhood near Fenkell and Livernois.

“We are negotiating and cooperating with the city,” said Becky Camargo, lawyer for Smalley Construction. “We expect to have a swift resolution to the matter.”


Because state environmental regulators tell Deadline Detroit that their cursory analysis of the dump reveals asbestos-containing materials in the rubble, including floor tiles, cement board and concrete. More analysis of the pile is recommended before moving it.

When all this ends is anyone's guess.

But it is worth remembering that democracy isn't just about occasional elections. It also means a government held accountable to the people between elections.

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