Algae in lake muck contains human waste

By: Julie Snyder | C&G Newspapers | Published September 7, 2012

HARRISON TOWNSHIP — DNA tests have revealed that the muck that accumulated along the shorelines of Lake St. Clair and the seawalls of some homes in St. Clair Shores last summer contains human waste.

During a water quality town hall meeting at MacRay Harbor in Harrison Township Sept. 5, Joan Rose, laboratory director/principal investigator at Michigan State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, said samples taken from Veterans Memorial Beach in St. Clair Shores and at Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Township showed high levels of bacteroides, or human markers.

At some homes, the muck extended as far as 15 feet from the seawall onto the lake and was thick enough to trap fish and floating debris.

Rose explained that during the summer of 2011, after learning about the muck problem, experts from the Macomb County Health Department collected nine samples and sent them to the Michigan State University lab for analysis. Scientists analyzed the samples for specific DNA markers that would reveal the extent and sources of fecal contamination at the beaches.

The main markers scientists looked for were E. coli, which is an indicator of fecal contamination from warm-blooded animals and is currently used as the water quality standard for beaches; enterococci, an indicator of fecal contamination from warm-blooded animals; and bacteroides, a target specific to humans.

Rose explained to a standing-room-only audience that each target was found at both sites, which indicates that there is human fecal contamination at the beaches.

“We found some markers that are human specific,” said Rose, “We’ve got greater human signatures impacting (Veterans) Memorial Beach more so than Metro Beach (now named Lake St. Clair Metropark).”

Rose said the spikes in the human marker at Veterans Memorial beach could be the result of several factors, including population increases, rainfall and wind directions.

She said additional studies will be done using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as other sources, to look closer at those factors, determine their impacts on the beaches and take a closer look at what was going on in mid-July 2011 when the level at the beach spiked considerably.

Rose said that additional samples would need to be taken further upstream on the Clinton River and on the Clinton River spillway to determine where the source of the contamination may be located.

State Rep. Anthony Forlini, R-Harrison Township, said he plans to organize a follow-up meeting once those results come in.

“We don’t have answers today, but we are getting closer,” said Forlini, who organized the town hall meeting. “I don’t want this conversation to end right here.”

Initial tests revealed that the muck was made up of algae that may have been compounded by storm water runoff, municipal wastewater discharge and zebra mussels, researchers said. Similar muck has been found in other Michigan waters, including Saginaw Bay and Grand Traverse Bay.

Forlini said pollution is a big part of the problem, and those who are polluting need to “pay the price.”

“This is a problem that we are inheriting from others,” he said. “They (polluters) are dumping on us, and we’re paying the price.”