The shoreline on Sabrina Jordan’s Harrison Township property is covered in over 4 feet of muck. A recent study found that the E. coli levels in the muck were not a danger.

The shoreline on Sabrina Jordan’s Harrison Township property is covered in over 4 feet of muck. A recent study found that the E. coli levels in the muck were not a danger.

Photo provided by Sabrina Jordan

Macomb County: Lake St. Clair E. coli poses no imminent public danger

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published January 27, 2020

MACOMB COUNTY — Macomb County Health Department results released Jan. 23, based on laboratory and visual analysis, stated that an unknown substance washed ashore from Lake St. Clair was “decaying filamentous algae with E. coli counts that present no imminent public health hazard, and are not indicative of raw sewage.”

Macomb County Health Department Environmental Director Andrew Cox said test samples were collected Jan. 21 at a homeowner’s address off Jefferson Avenue, in Harrison Township. Two samples of the matter discovered on the shoreline were collected.

Cox said that the samples were collected, packaged and sent to a third party, state-certified laboratory in Livonia for further analysis and results.

He said the process is similar to beach testing. The standard Environmental Protection Agency number of 300 colony-forming units per milliliter is used to determine whether public health risks exist. If tests reveal that the number exceeds 300, beach closures would occur.

In this case, since the tested matter was more of a solid base than a liquid base — which Cox deemed as “decaying plant matter” — the units were tested as the most probable number of organisms per gram.

“What we’re truly looking at is grow colonies of E. coli, and (the lab) analyzes it through their sampling methods,” he said. “What we determined is based off the numbers that they find.”

The next step is to further identify the matter in question and reach out to local partners and experts to confirm the identity of the matter based on visual analysis.

“We feel that there’s no public health threat,” Cox said, which extends to the sea life and its consumption.


Regional perspectives
Prior to test results becoming available, Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller called it “highly likely” that combined sewer overflows from Oakland County “played a role in the sludge.”

She said that during heavy rainfall or snowmelt, combined storm and sanitary sewage overflows local Macomb County systems and results in its dumping into local streams and, eventually, Lake St. Clair.

The office alleged that Oakland County’s George W. Kuhn Retention Basin, in Madison Heights, overflowed more than 750 million gallons into the Red Run during the heavy rains Jan. 11-13.

“These CSOs are having a direct, negative impact on the lake and the waterways that feed it,” Miller said in a press release. “Be it the combined sewer overflows itself, or the vegetation that grows excessively as a result of the sewage, it is all negatively impacting our blue economy and the residents of Macomb County.”

Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash disagreed with Miller’s assertion “completely.” He said screens at the George W. Kuhn Retention Basin will screen anything out more than a 1/2 inch in size and that it “couldn’t have come from their facility.”

He said it was 774 million gallons of screen, settled and skimmed stormwater mixed with sewage. Turnover occurs in every lake, he noted, especially large lakes. Each fall season, the summer growth of seaweeds underwater die and begin to rot. It happens under ice and is not visible to the human eye.

“It’s easy to lead to conclusions and unfortunately that happens,” Nash said Jan. 22. “I think the testing will bear this out. Whatever we find out, we’re open to whatever facts present themselves.”

Nash said that the water this year is 3 feet above average, and that the bulk of the matter is vegetation combined with some E. coli from plants and humans. Large rainstorms in January are contributing to the effect, he added, as a result of climate change.

“The scale and the amount of how much there is, if that had come down the Clinton River and Red Run Drain, you would see it on the shore of the river,” Nash said. “And there is none, because it didn’t come down the rivers. This is within the lake. … This is kind of how things are going to go in the future. All of these things will be made worse.”

On Jan. 25, Nash said the results “kind of turned out the way I thought.”

“It’s just a natural thing,” he said. “These kinds of things can’t be stopped by how we do what we do. This year was just a particularly bad year for (invasive algae).”

Miller previously said the state “must do better” in terms of how it addresses the intertwined Great Lakes ecosystem. She referred to the “bureaucratic red tape” of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy, or EGLE, in terms of expanding and upgrading the Chapaton Retention Basin, in St. Clair Shores.

Earlier this month, St. Clair Shores Mayor Kip Walby said expansion of that basin would allow for 17 million gallons of additional storage, reducing combined sewer overflows by up to 75%. In 2019, he said, there were 129 tons of CSOs released into Lake St. Clair.

Harrison Township Public Services Director Dave Axtell said Jan. 24 that the township neither has a water treatment plant nor a sewage treatment plant. He praised Miller for her “outstanding” work in the realm of trying to improve aging infrastructure.

“Though Harrison Township does not have sanitary sewer illicit discharge events, we are cooperating and working with Macomb County Public Works Office, the Macomb County Health Department and EGLE to improve our infrastructure and repair or replace any areas of our sanitary system that may be a source of infiltration — especially now, during these high water events,” Axtell said.

He added that the township does receive illicit discharge notifications from communities that are forced to discharge untreated sanitary sewer into the river or lake to avoid flooding their residents’ homes and/or businesses with untreated sanitary sewage.

“Unfortunately, this is not an ideal situation for the community that is forced to discharge untreated sanitary sewer into our waterways or for the communities downstream of the discharge event — which may force beach closures in warmer months, as well as health concerns to residents,” he said.

Miller declined any further comment after the test results were revealed.


Nothing new for residents
Sabrina Jordan, who lives near Jefferson Avenue in Harrison Township, said in a Facebook post that sludge had washed ashore on her property for the second time. It was over 4 feet high, she said.

In May 2011, Mike Gutow bought his lakefront house in the northern end of St. Clair Shores.

“What do you do when you buy a house on the lake?” Gutow said. “You’re there for the lake, really — not for the house.”

It took mere weeks for Gutow to discover “5 feet of solid muck on the shoreline.”

He said it worsens with every rain event. He believes that Oakland County’s dumping of 2.6 billion gallons of overflow around the time he bought his house helped “fuel and trigger” the massive algae bloom along the shore.

He contacted EGLE (formerly known as the Michigan Depaertment of Environmental Quality) and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He reached out to local and state politicians asking for help.

Over the years he has done research. He has been privy to all the Lake St. Clair Metropark beach closures. He asserts that natural lake debris, combined with algae and rotten aquatic life in the winter seasons, have merged with human waste.

“It’s a massacre of our water resources that we all need to live on, and nothing gets done about it,” he said. “There’s literally muck the size of three football fields in Harrison Township, and every year it gets bigger, bigger, bigger.”

In 2014, after two years of reaching out to everyone he could, he started the Facebook page “Save Lake St. Clair.” That was the same year a massive flood ravaged the metro Detroit area and innumerable citizens’ basements.

Now boasting more than 28,000 members, the group is trying to get more people engaged. Gutow said that achieving 10,000 members got attention on a local level; 25,000 members got attention on the state level; and he hopes hitting the 50,000 member mark will make national headlines.

He wants local municipalities to mimic what cities like Port Huron did, in terms of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to separate sewage and stormwater. The same happened in big cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia, he said.

“We got the attention of the state, but is the state willing to listen and learn and help fix this?” he said. “This is 100% fixable.”

In a state renowned for its blue economy, he said “we are all responsible” for leaving a clean environment for the next generation. The economic impact of not doing anything substantial is just as daunting.

“This is not 1920, it’s 2020,” he said. “We have the tools, the resources, the machinery. Let’s put people to work and fix this.”

Staff Writer Kristyne E. Demske contributed to this report.