Officials at odds over alleged ‘environmental scandal’

Warren mayor’s remarks set off weeklong debate over dirt dumped at Freedom Hill

By: Brian Louwers, Eric Czarnik | C&G Newspapers | Published November 25, 2016


MACOMB COUNTY — A vague, late-night Nov. 16 Facebook post by Warren Mayor Jim Fouts about a brewing “environmental scandal” in Macomb County set off an exchange between city and county officials that played out over a full week leading up to Thanksgiving.

At issue, according to Fouts in a follow-up Facebook post Nov. 18, was the construction of an earthen berm at Freedom Hill County Park in Sterling Heights. Fouts, after apparently meeting with a representative from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and consulting engineers, claimed that a massive amount of dirt was dumped without a permit, damaging an existing landfill on the property and creating an environmental risk.

Fouts referenced damage to 44 methane gas vents at the site. He also said down pressure caused by the dumped dirt created “12 leachate breakouts” on the previously closed and dormant landfill, which could cause contaminants to seep into the nearby Red Run Drain. Fouts said 64 trees are missing and an estimated 150 trees need to be planted to mitigate the resulting leachate.

Leachate, in this case, refers to water that has passed through decomposing landfill waste. The potentially contaminated liquid would normally, by design, remain safely contained in a sealed landfill environment.

Fouts alleged that an estimated 150,000 cubic yards of soil or more were apparently dumped at the Freedom Hill site without a permit.

Red Run, a tributary that now functions as a stormwater drain, flows from Madison Heights in Oakland County through Warren and Sterling Heights, and eventually into the Clinton River.

“Thus, these are some of the reasons why I raised the concern regarding an environmental disaster,” Fouts said.

Initially, the county’s top elected official took issue with how Fouts expressed his concerns. In his late-night post to Facebook that set off the controversy Nov. 16, Fouts likened the situation to a “mini version of what happened in Flint,” an apparent reference to a major scandal involving government inaction that caused Flint’s water to become tainted with lead.

In a later Facebook post, on Nov. 17, Fouts added that he wanted to “assure everyone in Warren that our water is safe and there is no environmental problem in our city.”

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel called a press conference Nov. 17 to address the “hysteria” he said was caused by the mayor’s vague post from the night before.

“It’s unacceptable. I don’t know how else to say it,” Hackel said afterward. “I think what we’ve got is a mayor who sometimes likes to exploit problems and create hysteria. This goes over the top.”

Hackel said he called the press conference to assure Macomb County residents that their drinking water is safe. Fouts’ initial Facebook post was shared dozens of times, and many commenters asked that same question. Hackel said the county also received many calls.

In a post Nov. 18, Fouts accused Hackel of “shooting the messenger.”

“That meant scapegoating and deflecting!” Fouts posted. “I raised this concern and question on my Facebook by not attacking nor accusing any person or governmental entity. The result was I was attacked for doing my job!”

A Warren official said damage to the landfill was addressed at a meeting of the South Macomb Disposal Authority board Nov. 9. Warren is one of five cities with membership in the authority, along with Center Line, Eastpointe, Roseville and St. Clair Shores. SMDA member communities bear responsibility for the closed landfill site at Freedom Hill.

Fouts said Warren bears responsibility for 47 percent of all SMDA costs, and he expressed concern about “monumental cleanup costs” if leachate were to reach Red Run as a result of the damage.

Macomb County Chief Deputy Executive Mark Deldin has since said the dirt came from public road projects in Macomb County, and he confirmed that it was tested as “good soil.” He said the county requested that the dirt be brought in.

Deldin said the dirt was added at Freedom Hill to create a berm that could absorb some sound and keep headlights from disturbing neighbors nearby. He added that the work was also done to level low-lying areas that have settled, particularly for the dirt parking lot at Freedom Hill.

“All of the work has been done through a permitting process with the city of Sterling Heights’ soil erosion department,” Deldin said. “And our Macomb County Public Works Office was aware that this work was going on out there.”

Deldin said the MDEQ was not originally contacted about the work.

“We thought we had obtained all the permissions that we needed once we applied for the permission of the soil erosion department, and our (county) Public Works Office knew this was going on,” he said.

On Nov. 21, Deldin added that work to fix damage to the site had already started.

“We expect work to take just a matter of days to address some of those issues,” he said.

Greg Barrows, senior geologist at the MDEQ, said the issue happened when a berm was built in order to prevent cars’ headlights from disturbing neighbors near Freedom Hill. As a result, tons of soil was brought in to create a berm.

“They covered up several of the vents, and they took out or covered several of the trees,” Barrows explained. “So they compromised the system, and presently, because of the weight of the material ... it’s putting compressional force on the landfill, causing leachate to seep out along the edge of the berm.”

Barrows said the problem was caught in time, and that a November meeting took place to discuss a short-term remedy and long-term reconstruction.

“Some of that short-term work is going on today,” he said Nov. 21. “So it’s being addressed. And at this point, there has been no damage to human health or the environment.”

In response to Fouts’ online posts, Sterling Heights Mayor Michael Taylor said on Facebook Nov. 19 that the work at Freedom Hill “shouldn’t have happened,” and that it had created “a very fixable mistake” — but not one related to public health.

“The experts told the city that there are no imminent public health issues with water contamination or methane gas,” he wrote Nov. 18. “The (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) is in the loop. The issues are minor and not threatening to your health. The remediation work will happen very soon.”

Taylor added Nov. 19 that fixing the problems shouldn’t put taxpayers on the hook if the county’s contractors were “properly bonded.”

“Facts confirmed there is no environmental scandal. There will be no mini version of what happened in Flint. And it will not cost taxpayers millions of dollars,” he wrote Nov. 19.

On Nov. 21, Taylor told C & G Newspapers that he thinks the issue is resolved, and he said there is no public safety crisis. He said the issue was caught in time and is going to be corrected. He said he believes that Fouts “blew this way out of proportion, needlessly frightening people, and it was really disappointing.”

Nevertheless, Taylor said he sees the two neighboring cities continuing to work closely together, despite the recent social media dispute.

“What’s important to know is the city of Sterling Heights’ administration and the Warren administration work very well together. We share services,” Taylor said. “There is no rift between the city of Sterling Heights and the city of Warren. (The dispute) doesn’t have any impact on our commitment to being a good neighbor to the city of Warren and working together in whatever way for the mutual benefit of our cities.”

On Nov. 22, Fouts released a letter he wrote to Taylor further outlining his position and concerns.

Fouts said Warren has paid its 47 percent share of the SMDA’s $3 million in costs to remediate the Freedom Hill landfill site since 2009. He said the cost of further remediation as a result of the “illegal dumping” could reach $500,000 over a nine-month period.

“So clearly, as mayor of Warren, I will speak out on any matter that disturbs this landfill,” Fouts wrote.

The Warren mayor also accused Taylor of “echoing the comments” made by Hackel.

“That’s why I refer to you and the county executive as the ‘pollution cover-up tag team,’” Fouts wrote.

Reached for further comment, Fouts later added that as far as he is concerned, “it’s a conspiracy to cover up an illegal dumping. Based on the consent decree with the SMDA, they may have violated some environmental laws and they may face a fine or maybe something else.”

In his correspondence to Taylor, Fouts added, “In my opinion, you and the county executive saved the excavating company thousands of dollars in transport costs much further away from Freedom Hill. Was this a special favor, and what financial arrangement was made with the contractor?”

In a Nov. 22 press release, the city of Sterling Heights issued an official statement, which emphasized that Macomb County owns Freedom Hill County Park and that Sterling Heights “does not have jurisdiction over Freedom Hill park nor the closed landfills which are under a remediation action plan.”

The statement says the city issued the soil erosion permit back in February so the county could have some ground leveled for Freedom Hill parking. But the release says the city “was not a party” to the summer berm work.

The statement says the two landfills that are situated within and behind the park fall under the SMDA’s jurisdiction, and the press release adds that the SMDA and the MDEQ “have been fully aware of the condition on the property since at least July of 2016.”

“The health, safety and wellness of residents is paramount to the city of Sterling Heights,” the statement concludes. “As such, the city of Sterling Heights remains confident that Macomb County and SMDA are taking the necessary steps to address and complete the repair work and any other remedial action required.”