Water Pollution:

Efforts to Clean Up Michigan's Rouge River

RCED-88-164: Published: Aug 10, 1988. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 1988.

Additional Materials:


Richard L. Hembra
(202) 512-6111


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed federal, state, and local efforts to clean up Michigan's Rouge River, focusing on: (1) the overall quality of the river's waters; (2) pollutant sources; (3) the status of cleanup planning efforts; and (4) costs of remedial cleanup efforts.

GAO found that: (1) Michigan's Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) was responsible for managing the river's cleanup; and (2) the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was responsible for ensuring that cleanup activities met legislative requirements. GAO also found that: (1) the river's water quality, which ranged from fair to very poor, severely impaired its uses for fishing and swimming and constituted a threat to public health; (2) discharges of pollutants from overflowing combined sewers, estimated at 473 million pounds annually, were the major pollution sources; (3) planning for the river's cleanup intensified in 1986 when MDNR made it a priority and jointly developed with EPA and local communities a plan to eliminate untreated discharges and overflows and to finance remedial measures; (4) costs to fully implement the plan were unknown, although estimates for partial implementation totalled $1.8 billion; (5) MDNR plans to more effectively use the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System to reduce the amount of discharged pollutants and ensure permittees' compliance with permit requirements; and (6) EPA worked with MDNR to resolve problems it identified in the computerized system MDNR used to assess permit compliance.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: EPA Region V contracted out the development of a remedial action plan tracking system to assist in its followup on milestone dates and identified problems. Although the region periodically monitors the state's activities, a needed tracking system has not been developed due to poor contractor performance and resource constraints.

    Recommendation: Because of the Rouge River's long history of pollution problems, its potential for public contact and use, which is the greatest of all the rivers in Michigan, the recent priority assigned to cleanup by Michigan, and the effect of the river's water quality on international waters, the Administrator, EPA, should require its Chicago Regional Office to establish controls designed specifically to oversee MDNR implementation of corrective actions on Rouge River discharge permits. As part of these controls, EPA should perform periodic reviews of MDNR progress to correct combined sewer, stormwater, municipal, industrial, and pretreatment permit program problems and provide feedback to MDNR on its assessment of the progress made to resolve these problems. If MDNR does not make satisfactory progress, the Administrator should develop options in consultation with MDNR to address the obstacles encountered.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Nov 20, 2020

Nov 19, 2020

Oct 6, 2020

Sep 23, 2020

Aug 6, 2020

Aug 5, 2020

Jul 23, 2020

Jul 14, 2020

Jun 25, 2020

Looking for more? Browse all our products here