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Former Dump Site an Island of Green in Detroit River

By Donald McArthur, The Windsor Star, April 29, 2009

When chemical company BASF dispatched Frederick DeLisle to deal with the pollution dust on Fighting Island more than two decades ago, it was a bleached out dumping ground with 19 million cubic metres of industrial waste spread over 900 acres.

Today, thanks to the patient, plodding work of DeLisle and others, the 1,200-acre Detroit River island has been transformed into a lush, green sanctuary for deer, coyotes, eagles and wide-eyed Windsor and Essex County youngsters on school field trips.

"It's beyond gratifying," said DeLisle, facilities manager for BASF.

"I've got deer running and coyotes running and boy scouts planting trees. It's good stuff."

More than 340,000 trees have been planted on the island in the past 20 years -- transforming it from chalk white to green in satellite photos -- and scouts plant 1,000 more every year. The emphasis lately has been on planting berry bushes to help sustain the island's increasingly abundant wildlife.

More than 150 different plants have taken root, not in soil, but in the alkaline wastebeds that were the byproduct of soda ash production and dumped on the island for decades.

BASF, which received an award from the Essex Region Conservation Authority in 2006, sets out four wagons of grain every winter for the island's wildlife and also plants 40 acres of corn and soybeans for critters to nibble on. It grinds up 40 truckloads of leaves from LaSalle each year to use as compost and is converting 19-foot deep canals that cut across the island into marshes about five feet deep.

"We're trying to make something positive out of it," said DeLisle. "We're trying to get it to sustain itself." The revitalized island was celebrated as a success story Tuesday at the University of Windsor's State of the Strait conference, which this year focused on habitat modification.

More than 200 academics and environmentalists took part in the conference, which also featured talks on tallgrass prairie restoration in the Ojibway Prairie Nature Reserve, the southern flying squirrels in Point Pelee National Park and the success of recently installed spawning beds in the Detroit River.

Derek Coronado of the Citizens Environment Alliance of Southwestern Ontario said it was imperative that similar reclamation projects be undertaken throughout the Great Lakes basin. He added it was essential for governments on both sides of the border to earmark more resources toward monitoring the health of the basin.

Phil Roberts, of the Essex County Field Naturalist's club, spoke about the region's fledgling eagle population -- now up to 10 active nests -- and urged the senior levels of government to protect the last strip of undeveloped shoreline, Ojibway Shores.

"We've got a couple of unique opportunities to create linkages between the Detroit River and meaningful habitats like the Ojibway complex," said Roberts. "Make that corridor, make that whole linkage meaningful."

The site has been selected as the location for a new border crossing and Roberts said the project would dovetail with efforts to protect the shoreline.

"My first view of Canada would be this enormous green corridor leading up into what the city of Windsor has worked so hard to protect and to enhance," he said.

Copyright (c) The Windsor Star