Residents of Zilwaukee, MI, were alarmed when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to dump dioxin-contaminated “dredge spoils” near peoples’ homes, especially once they learned the Corps did not conduct legally-required environmental and public health reviews.

Dredge spoils are the soil and sediment removed from the bed or bottom of lakes, rivers, or other bodies of water. In this case, the Corps intended to dredge the Upper Saginaw River to improve navigation for ship traffic, and to then build a landfill in which to dump the excavated sediment. The problem: the Corps’ own studies showed that the river channel, victim to a long history of industrial and agricultural pollution, was contaminated by dioxins, highly toxic chemical compounds linked to birth defects, immunodeficiencies, and forms of cancer.

In 2006, NELC filed suit under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) to compel the Corps to prepare an environmental impact statement before starting the project. Unfortunately, the court did not find that the environmental effects of the dredging and landfilling would be significant enough to trigger NEPA, and thus ruled in favor of the Army Corps. However, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality stepped in and required the Corps to conduct a hydrogeological study to determine the likelihood of the landfill causing groundwater contamination. As a result, the Corps was forced to reduce the size of their landfill by 60 acres to avoid the most porous soil areas. Additionally, the court accepted most of NELC’s legal arguments and adopted standards for reviewing NEPA disputes that make it easier for environmental plaintiffs to win cases in Michigan.