Town hall focuses on unresolved contamination in Lake St. Clair

By: Julie Snyder | Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published October 6, 2017

HARRISON TOWNSHIP — “It’s broken — it’s been broken, and no one is doing anything to fix it.”

That’s how state Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, referred to Macomb County’s flawed sewer infrastructure, which he said has ultimately been the cause of regular contamination causing mucky shorelines and beach closures, during a recent water quality meeting.

Lucido and state Rep. Kevin Hertel, D-St. Clair Shores, hosted a town hall at MacRay Harbor in Harrison Township Oct. 2 in an effort to give county residents an opportunity to voice their concerns about the lake and their drinking water to state and local regulators. On hand were officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, or MDEQ.

“Lake St. Clair provides 40 percent of our drinking water in the state,” Lucido said prior to the meeting. He said the fact that billions of gallons of sewage, both raw and partially treated, have been dumped in Lake St. Clair over the years via the Red Run Drain in Oakland County should be more than enough motivation to get more people involved in saving the local waterway.

“I will not stand for it,” he said. “It’s an absolute gem, and an economic driver for Macomb County.”

Michigan has the third-largest boating industry in the country, according to the MDEQ. In Macomb County, there are nearly 900,000 registered boaters who take to Lake St. Clair for recreation and for sport. The lake is largely known for its healthy bass and muskie life.

“Lake St. Clair should be a huge asset to our area, but pollution and high E. coli levels have left many people too disgusted to use the water,” Lucido said. “This issue has been going on for years, and residents are fed up.”

Not only is human waste a factor in the high E. coli levels, seagulls and Canadian geese are also contributors, according to Shannon Briggs, a water toxicologist for the MDEQ. Briggs explained the measuring and monitoring process involved in determining if the water is contaminated; specifically, finding E. coli levels — it involves taking water samples at least 3 feet into a lake or river and counting bacterial colonies by the volume of water. If the level is above the standard, the beach is closed to swimmers. Such was the case a number of times this summer at Veterans Memorial Park beach in St. Clair Shores and at Lake St. Clair Metropark beach in Harrison Township.

“This is not an issue that only impacts the Lansing bubble,” Hertel said. “Residents have real questions about their water, and it’s important that officials from (the) MDEQ hear these concerns and give them answers.”

Harrison Township resident William Bardill argued that it takes too long to determine if E. coli levels are above the water quality standard, and that local treatment plants should be doing regular monitoring.

“It’s 2017. Why on God’s green Earth do you not have real-time validation?” he asked.

Dan Beauchamp, a Sewage Overflow Program specialist for the MDEQ, said state and federal permitting requirements allow wastewater treatment plants to compile the data and report it to the MDEQ on a monthly basis.

A large portion of the county still operates on combined sewer systems, including Chapaton Retention Basin at Nine Mile Road and the 10 Mile Retention Basin, both in St. Clair Shores. One pipe carries sewage from homes and businesses, as well as stormwater runoff from street drains. When there is rainfall, the two mix and spill over into retention basins and ultimately into rivers and drains that carry it out into Lake St. Clair.

A local resident asked the MDEQ panel if the state is regularly monitoring wastewater treatment systems and ensuring they have sufficient capacity.

“We don’t do a great job right now in our collection systems out in communities,” said Phil Argiroff, of the MDEQ’s Water Resources Division. “We have a sort of reactive system where if you have a sewage overflow, we’ll come out and address it. We are working to address the wastewater systems in the permitting process in a preventative way.”

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller said the work she has been doing to detect and stop illicit sewer connections and cleaning out drains is a step in the right direction.

“We just discovered an illegal sewer connection running from an apartment building in Eastpointe that was dumping raw sewage to a storm drain and into Lake St. Clair. For 30 years,” Miller said. “That’s 250,000 gallons of raw sewage a year for 30 years.”

The connection was rerouted, and Miller said it’s possible that there are more such connections, though none have yet been discovered.

Other areas of concern as to what’s polluting Lake St. Clair and how to stop it for future generations include chemical spills from Canada’s Sarnia area — specifically, a place called Chemical Valley where a long stretch of factories operate and where numerous massive spills have happened over the years, pouring pollutants into the St. Clair River and the lake.

The goal of the town hall, Lucido said, was to gather together minds and talent, those who are knowledgeable of the issue and can do something about it.

Those individuals include Doug Martz, a former member of the now-defunct Water Quality Board, who has worked to save the lake for more than 24 years, and Mike Gutow, who founded the Save Lake St. Clair group, which informs followers on its Facebook page.

Gutow said he wants people to know they have the power to make a change.

“To make things better, you have to get better,” he said. “Why not now? It seems like a good time.

“They say it will cost an estimated $1 billion to fix the problem,” Gutow said. “But it will just increase again in five years and again in 10 years.”

Lucido said he is open to co-sponsoring another town hall, “or a series of town halls, to continue to shine a spotlight on this issue and to continue to push for a solution.”