Salt shaker

Mar 5, 2003 at 12:00 am

Nearly every day at about 3:30 p.m., Jacqueline Smith hears three blasts in her southwest Detroit neighborhood. Occasionally, her house shakes.

“You can feel it,” says Smith.

She is not the only one to notice the booming sound or the vibration, and Smith isn’t the only one complaining about it.

Last week nearly 160 residents gathered at the Southwestern Church of God on South Fort Street, where they vented for two hours about the daily explosions they’ve heard and felt since the Detroit Salt Co. began mining in the area four years ago.

Smith and others complain of cracked foundations, sidewalks and driveways, falling bricks and sinkholes.

In 1999, the City of Detroit agreed to lease public property to Detroit Salt for 20 years so that it could extract salt from 1,500 acres on the southwest edge of the city. The company, which is owned by Janette Ferrantino, a Michigan resident, agreed to pay the city 52 cents for each ton of salt mined until 2005. At that time, the company must pay the city 52 cents per ton or 3.2 percent of the net sales price, whichever is higher. It also must pay the city $3 per acre per year to rent the land mined until 2005, when the rent gradually increases to $30 per acre per year for the life of the lease.

Some residents sold their mineral rights to Detroit Salt for as much as $800, allowing the company to mine beneath their homes.

To extract the salt, the company sets off fuel oil and fertilizer (the same mix Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City) about 1,200 feet underground.

“I have cracks in my basement and cracks in my driveway,” says Smith, who has lived in the neighborhood for 38 years.

But Smith and her neighbors have no way of knowing if the damage is due to normal wear and tear or the detonations; there has been no independent oversight to ensure that the explosions are within the legal limits for a residential area.

“We don’t know what they’re doing down there,” says Smith.

According to the lease between the city and Detroit Salt, the company is responsible for monitoring itself and providing the city an annual report. Kimberly Roberts, Detroit Salt Co.’s office manager, says the blasts, measured daily, are well within allowable standards set by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The lease agreement allows the city to inspect the mine, but it has never done so, according to Alan Hayner, a specialist with the city Planning and Development Department, which is responsible for enforcing the lease agreement. Hayner says records provided by Detroit Salt indicate that the mine is well below the allowable blasting limits.

But Hayner, who attended the community meeting, told residents that the city intends to find a qualified independent engineer to test the effect of the blasts in the next 90 days. Hayner, who was recently charged with overseeing the project, says he also will make a map of the damaged homes and the sites of detonations to see if there is a correlation between them. He suspects that the trouble is not the mine explosions, but the constant train and truck traffic that has saturated the highly industrialized neighborhood for decades.

Bedrock issues

About 450 million years ago, Michigan was submerged in salt water, says Hayner. That’s when a massive salt deposit, which runs from Detroit to Quebec, formed.

Detroit Salt first opened the mine in 1906. At the time, it sold salt for consumption and to the leather industry. The company prospered for nearly 80 years before closing in 1983.

But the mine reopened as the century closed. Today, the company mines about 1 million tons of salt annually. The salt is sold to governments in and outside of Michigan for deicing roads. Roberts would not say how much the salt costs or how much the company earns annually.

Hayner says nearly 1,000 feet of bedrock separate the salt deposit and the earth’s surface. He suspects that the rock absorbs some of the sound and shock waves from detonations. But he can’t be certain until he begins monitoring the blasts.

Otis Mathis, who has lived in the neighborhood for 27 years, wonders whether the explosions caused his driveway to sink. He would like to find out. He and others say they have been complaining to the city about the blasting since mining resumed. But it has been a struggle. In fact, Mathis says that when the lease agreement was before the City Council in 1999, no public hearing was held.

“There is a certain amount of truth to that,” says Councilman Ken Cockrel, who voted against the lease. He says there may have been one public meeting, but that was it. Cockrel says he opposed the lease because of lack of public input and the city’s failure to ensure that the residents’ property could not be harmed by the blasts.

“The lease agreement was to protect the city’s interest and allow the salt mine to blast under city property and give some protection to the residents,” says Cockrel. “It hasn’t worked and I knew it wasn’t going to work. There is too much wrong with it.”

Who’s in charge?

Cockrel says Detroit Salt was to act as a community liaison, fielding complaints from the residents and reporting them to the city. “As far as I know, that has not been done,” he says.

Roberts was vague about how often it receives citizen complaints. “On and off,” she says. “It varies.”

“It’s like having the fox guarding the hen house,” says Carl Ramsey, who heads the SouthEnd Neighborhood City Hall. He says he has received dozens of complaints about the blasts since Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick appointed him to the post about a year ago. Ramsey claims that the previous administration did little to address residents’ concerns. He also says that some city and state departments also have ignored his requests for help.

“Since the salt mine reopened in 1999 there has been poor communication, poor leadership, no oversight or monitoring on behalf of certain departments in state and city governments,” says Ramsey. “But the Kilpatrick administration will see to it that everyone involved with the salt mine will do their jobs and respond to the complaints of the citizens, and their needs.”

Ramsey says he went directly to the mayor for help and that Kilpatrick supported him by holding last week’s town hall meeting. It was an impressive turnout of residents, city, county and state officials.

Ramsey passed out complaint forms to the residents and suggested organizing a committee to review the lease to see how it could be better enforced; he plans to have the issue resolved in 90 days. After Ramsey and several government officials spoke, a stream of citizens lined up at a microphone to lodge complaints.

Cockrel asked if any representatives of Detroit Salt were present, but no one came forth. However, Roberts says, a Detroit Salt employee did attend the meeting.

“We were there as a silent partner to listen to the meeting,” says Roberts.

Roberts says Detroit Salt will hold “educational meetings and let them [residents] know what is going on in their environment.”

She says she plans to work closely with Ramsey and Hayner to address citizen concerns.

If the city or Detroit Salt does not follow through, there may be repercussions. Smith, for one, suggested filing a class-action lawsuit at last week’s meeting. And when she did, the crowd applauded.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail [email protected]