Questions continue with Middlebelt tunnel project

By: Sherri Kolade | Farmington Press | Published February 7, 2017

 Farmington Hills resident Dan McRoberts had silt in his water, and the particles came out of every faucet in his home. McRoberts said the silt clogged filters and damaged appliances. He is now on city water.

Farmington Hills resident Dan McRoberts had silt in his water, and the particles came out of every faucet in his home. McRoberts said the silt clogged filters and damaged appliances. He is now on city water.

File photo provided by Dan McRoberts

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FARMINGTON HILLS — Dan McRoberts says he has a $2 million solution for the delays and setbacks tied to the Middlebelt transport and storage tunnel project that has been so problematic for his and others’ water.

“The only way to remedy all issues is what we’ve said for months: Install a water main throughout the subdivision,” McRoberts, the president of the Greencastle Civic and Improvement Association in a neighborhood off of Middlebelt Road, said in an email. “The cost is estimated to be less than $2 million. Everything else is just a Band-Aid.”

The purpose of the tunnel project is to reduce the risk of sanitary sewer overflows, or SSOs, which may occur when the Farmington Interceptor overloads during heavy rainstorms. When SSOs occur, sewage can flow out of manhole covers or back up into residents’ basements.

McRoberts said that about 18 months ago there were no problems with his water. Most people in his subdivision, and a couple of others nearby, were on wells. After the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office started the project, residents experienced water issues — including a sulfur smell and silt in the water coming out of their faucets. McRoberts said that not a lot of people were experiencing this at first, but then more people began having problems too.

McRoberts drank bottled water for three months and had a 300-gallon temporary tank hooked up to his house for just as long. Initially, the WRC drilled two wells on McRoberts’ property, but they weren’t producing any water, so McRoberts was hooked up to city water.

Eighty residents, including McRoberts, reached out to the WRC and Farmington Hills city officials to get the ball rolling to find a solution.

WRC Community Liaison Craig Covey provided a Middlebelt Tunnel project status update and confirmed that the WRC received 106 complaints.

“Approximately 70 residential wells were impacted as a result of dewatering activities,” Covey confirmed in the status update. Dewatering involved using pumps to drain the aquifer so construction work could proceed.

The update concludes that:

• Seventy-eight complaints require no further involvement.

• Sixteen residents are waiting for testing results or clarification of a previous test.

• Five homeowners have not yet responded to the WRC’s requests for information.

• One homeowner will be reimbursed upon receipt of additional information.

• Three residents retained legal counsel.

The WRC is engaged with a total of 18 homes that need some appliances replaced, a water system assessment or a completion of water system repairs.

“If residents believe they have experienced any impact to their water system as a result of this project, we will investigate and appropriately respond,” states the project status update letter that Covey provided.

The letter also states that no resident is without water, and only one homeowner is relying on a temporary tank until a new well is installed;  three temporary tanks are on standby only.

The letter adds that as far as residential well testing, the WRC completed testing at about 86 sampling sites and received results for 77 of them, all of which have “met drinking water standards.”

However, three residents have water quality issues that are currently being addressed, and the WRC uses the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in Lansing for analysis, according to the letter.

The tests measure levels of iron, bacteria, minerals, compounds and metals for private wells, according to the letter.

WRC officials project that Utley Road, off of Middlebelt Road, is slated to open by the end of February; dewatering is expected to end early this month; the final completion, including the restoration of grass, tree plantings and permanent pavement installation, is expected this summer.

McRoberts, who described the project last fall as “poorly done in the first place,” said this month that the subdivision sent a letter out Jan. 29 to Mayor Ken Massey; City Council members; Oakland County commissioners; state House District 37 Rep. Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills; and the WRC.

“All of a sudden they decided to (do) updates,” McRoberts said of the WRC, “which is one of the things we’ve been asking prior to this.”

Residents said monthly water testing has not been done; residents also feel that their aquifer has been impacted, but the WRC disagrees.

“It doesn’t take an engineering degree to know if the water is stopped, lowered for an extended period of time, allowing the dirt to dry, raised, and then forced to go in a different direction; the ground will be weakened and cause more sediment to be stirred into the aquifer,” McRoberts said in the letter, adding that all residents should have the option to be connected into municipal water this point. “It is the only way to ensure a permanent, safe, clean and reliable source of drinking water.”

Covey said in an email that the aquifer is recharging and dewatering is winding down.

“Most folks are back on their wells, with no further issues,” he said in the email. “Any homes still with any issues are being remedied individually by our staff or contractors.”

A letter sent out by Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber Inc. on behalf of the WRC states that an early December public meeting took place where Michael Colvin, a certified professional geologist from FTCH, presented an overview of the water monitoring program. The program will be implemented after the shutdown of the dewatering system along Middlebelt Road, according to the letter, which gave a description of the monitoring program and what homeowners can expect if they participate in it.

 The WRC is monitoring aquifer recovery data at select wells within the Middlebelt Road right of way, and the data will be used along with water quality test data to study changes in water quality. Three rounds of sampling are set to be performed in February, May and August — sampling will be submitted to the MDEQ Drinking Water Laboratory in Lansing.

Residents whose wells are impacted and were previously sampled by the WRC are eligible to participate in the monitoring program and may enroll by contacting Chris Huver at (616) 464-3790 or at cdhuver@ftch.com by Feb. 15. Those who decide to email are asked to include their home address and phone number. For more information on the program, contact Mike Colvin at (616) 464- 3729 or at mdcolvin@ftch.com.

McRoberts said that the Feb. 15 deadline is not enough time and that FTCH should be coming to the residents. 

“You should come test everything in the subdivision, because (it) seems to be affecting houses in different ways,” he said.

McRoberts also said subdivision residents want clear-cut answers as to what is going on with their water.

“It’s a blow to us,” McRoberts said, adding that the project is “way past due” and the WRC, although it is responding, is “sporadic” and lacking in details with its responses.

In April 2016, WRC officials discussed revising the Middlebelt project to decrease the tunnel length by 1,636 feet and lower its capacity.  

The tunnel will create flood relief by providing an additional 2.8 million gallons of sewage capacity to the existing sanitary sewer —  that’s down from the originally planned 3.6 million additional gallons of storage.

The original plans would have extended the tunnel 7,566 feet under Middlebelt Road, between 13 Mile Road and Interstate 696, ending at the northwest corner of Middlebelt Road and 13 Mile Road. The plan now will have the tunnel extend 5,930 feet, ending at Middlebelt Road, just south of Chenwood Court.

The sewer tunnel construction project, which began in February 2015 and was to last through that fall, was extended to January 2017 — and a new completion date is slated for May 2017.

In 2014, the original estimated project cost was between $48 million and $49 million.

The cost went down to $36.9 million, to be shared by four communities — Farmington Hills, Keego Harbor, Orchard Lake and West Bloomfield — that are tributaries to the tunnel. The price of $26.5 million, or 54 percent of the total, is the responsibility of the Farmington Hills ratepayers, Massey said last fall.

The tunnel is being shortened because of ground conditions north of Chenwood Court, which required dewatering to build the tunnel structure with a tunnel boring machine, according to WRC documents. About 40 homes in that area were impacted initially, from needing temporary water to having boring machines drill holes in lawns.

The needed dewatering process would have had the same impact, potentially, on more residential wells if the tunnel length hadn’t been shortened. The question from some residents and city officials remains: Will there be an additional storage system to make up for the loss?

Andrew McCune, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the engineering firm Wade Trim, a Detroit-based consulting firm, said back in April that during the analysis phase, it was not anticipated that as many people would be impacted, but there was a plan in place to make sure temporary water was provided.

Massey also said last fall that now that the tunnel is shorter and has less capacity than the original design, it is costing in more ways than one — residents’ problems, traffic problems, project time extensions, the impact on businesses, cost overruns and more.

Greencastle Secretary Melanie Williams sent out a letter Jan. 27 to subdivision members stating that her home’s bladder tank had been replaced and the water coming from her well was “rainbow colored,” with an oily sheen and black sediment; she had other water-related issues as well.

“To say that I am frustrated and disgusted is an enormous understatement,” she said in the letter. “It makes me sick to think that we have been showering in this water since at least September. The WRC has not done nearly enough in that time to keep my family safe. Our quality of life has been diminished, and we have had to put our plans for having a baby on hold because we do not have a safe and reliable water source.”

For additional information on the Middlebelt tunnel project, visit www.oakgov.com/water/pages/projects.

Call the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner’s Office at (248) 858-0958 for more information.

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