Coal tar coming out of Flint River as Consumers’ remediation, re-naturalization proceeds

By Meghan Christian

Remediation and re-naturalization of the Flint River between Fifth Avenue/Robert T. Longway and the Hamilton Dam downtown has begun, with removal of all vegetation on the river banks paving the way for expected extensive summer work.

Flint River cleared of vegetation at UM – Flint campus in preparation for remediation and re-naturalization. (Photo by Meghan Christian)

Consumers Energy and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality representatives held an information session followed by a public hearing at the Flint Farmers’ Market on Tuesday, April 11,  to inform the public of plans for work on the Flint River along East Boulevard Drive. A similar presentation was offered the next day to the FACT (Flint Action Coordination Team)–Community Partners meeting at City Hall.

According to Kevin Keane,  Consumers Energy area manager, the cleanup — which awaits final permit approval with plans to begin by the end of May —  is necessary to remove contaminated sediments, specifically coal tar, left from the operation of a manufactured gas plant (MGP) on East Boulevard Drive in the 1920s.

Consumers bought the plant in the 1920s, stopped using it in the late 1920s, and retired it completely in the 1950s, he said.

He said coal tar from the plant’s operations entered the river through migration and run-off.

Keane explained MGPs were in operation across the United States from the late 1800s until the mid-20th century before natural gas pipelines were installed. The plants turned coal and oil to gas that was then distributed to the public for heating and cooking.

Because pipelines as we know them today didn’t exist at that time, Keane explained,  every major city had a manufactured gas plant.

However, he said, manufacturers of the time were not responsible for what they did with the byproducts. Over a hundred years later, Consumers discovered coal tar in the bottom of the river, a byproduct of the gas plant.

“All that gunk” coming out

To get what Keane called “all that gunk”  out from underneath the dirt, Consumers expects to dig out more than 75,000 cubic yards of river bottom between Fifth Avenue and the Hamilton Dam.

Then workers will rebuild the river bottom, covering it with sand, clay and gravel, then cap it, then add a rock armor barrier to protect the cap, ultimately restoring the river bottom to a natural state for the macro and micro invertebrates.

Sediment initially will be moved to Consumers parking lot.  Water drained from the sediment will be treated and either returned to the river or back into the sewer system. The dried sediment will be sent to an approved landfill, Keane said.

“Our goal through environmental remediation is to improve the hydraulics of the river, open up both banks and enhance that part of the river for recreational activities. working in concert with the Flint Riverbank Restoration Project downstream from the Hamilton Dam,” he said.

“The entire site will be restored to what we think will be a better condition than it is now,”  Keane predicted.

Trees removed to prevent bird, bat migration interruptions

As many have noticed, Keane explained, trees and vegetation had to be removed early in the project, in consultation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Division, “so that we did not impact migrating birds and Indiana bats.” He promised the river banks will be left with a more accessible grade and said Consumers plans to replant the area with quality trees and native species.

The project also calls for  a new pedestrian bridge over the river.  The existing pedestrian bridge across the river at UM – Flint originally was a railroad bridge, then an auto bridge. But as streets closed when Autoworld and the UM-Flint campus were developed, it was converted into a walking connector.

“That was a long time ago,”  Keane said.  Since then, the bridge superstructure has become heavily corroded, creating a maintenance headache and impeding the river flow.

Hoping to alleviate the worries of residents already impacted by water concerns, Keane said water intake for the City is three miles upstream, so that the raw water intake for Flint will not be affected. He added the dredging technique they plan to use is optimal for water cleanup.

“Coal tar for the most part is not soluble in water, which makes dredging a viable option,” said Keane. Dredging uses machinery to remove the impacted sediments from the river bed and also involves excavating the banks of the river.

Air quality, odor, noise to be monitored

Keane also addressed potential concerns regarding noise, odor and air quality. “Air quality monitoring will be conducted on a regular basis on-site and at adjacent locations,” he said.

Keane was not the only speaker to put an emphasis on the public’s potential concerns. Jim Innes, project manager from the MDEQ for the Flint River sediment remediation project, said the completed project would have not just tourist potential, but also represents a partnership between the public and all parties involved in the cleanup. The project involves consultation and collaboration with the City of Flint, the University of Michigan-Flint, the U.S. Post Office and other adjacent stakeholders, Keane and Innes said.

Keane said East Boulevard Drive will be closed between the U.S. Post Office and UM-Flint.  He said UM-Flint’s Parking Lot A will be accessible from Chavez Drive, and the post office will be accessible as usual from Fifth Avenue/Robert T. Longway.

Innes noted the timing of the work was crucial — connected to a plan to naturalize the river and to remove at least part of the Hamilton Dam downstream of the affected area.  He said, “it is imperative that this project be completed before the proposed removal of the Hamilton Dam” so that the sediment would not escape downstream.

“When Consumers bought this property, we inherited all the responsibilities that go with it,”  Keane said.   “It is our responsibility to be a good steward of the environment. We own it, we are responsible for it, and we are going to fix it to the best of our ability.”

He said though recreational activities in the work zone will be unavailable for the summer, the Crim road race this summer will not be impacted.

The project is expected to be completed by December.

For more information on the project, including FAQs and contact information, visit

This is the first post by new EVM Managing Editor Meghan Christian.  She can be reached at

EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson contributed to this report.  She can be reached at





Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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