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Port Huron listed among worst for sewer discharges

Monday, May 16, 2011   (0 Comments)
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A statewide group has named St. Clair County one of its "Dirty Dozen" because more than 7.7 million gallons of partially treated sewage and storm water have been released into the St. Clair River since the start of the year.

The Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, a group of highway construction companies and suppliers, said discharges into bodies of water statewide since January have totaled about 15 billion gallons. Wayne County tops the list at 13.4 billion gallons. St. Clair County is 10th on the list.

In St. Clair County, nine of 10 discharges cited in the report were from Port Huron; the largest discharge -- 2.1 million gallons -- was March 5 in Marysville. The last discharge in the report was April 27 in Port Huron.

Both communities are in the middle of multimillion-dollar projects to eliminate most discharges from sanitary and combined sewers.

But while millions of dollars are being spent to prevent pollution from entering the river, a state-of-the-art monitoring system to detect petrochemicals spilled from Sarnia's Chemical Valley could be shut down by the end of the year because there's no money to maintain and operate it.

"This is the stupidest thing I ever heard of," said Doug Martz, chairman of Macomb County's Water Quality Board. "We raised $3.4 million to put this thing in I never dreamt when the system was put in place there would be a problem maintaining it."

While the monitoring system -- covering about 100 miles of waterfront and 13 water plants from Port Huron to Wyandotte -- detects spills and alerts water plant operators to close their intakes when a spill happens, what Port Huron and Marysville are doing focuses on keeping the bad stuff out of the river.

Bob Clegg, Port Huron city engineer, said the city would have discharged about 76 million gallons of partially treated sewage and storm water from combined sewer overflows already this year if not for work that has been completed in separating the city's sewers.

Combined sewers carry storm water and raw sewage. When large amounts of water enter the system because of rain or snowmelt, the treatment plant at the end of the pipe can become overloaded. When that happens, the partially treated mixture of storm water and sewage is released to stop sewers from backing up. Port Huron has been working under a state order to separate its combined system into storm and sanitary sewers.

"If you look at the numbers that are in that report, the city's total overflows for this year are about 5.3 million," he said. "That is significantly less than the volume of overflow that we would have had if we hadn't been doing sewer separation."

Clegg's numbers and the MITA report did not include a combined sewer overflow that discharged 1.83 million gallons of combined wastewater and sewage from noon to 3 p.m. Thursday into the St. Clair River. The discharge contained 127,820 gallons of sanitary sewage.

The city is doing two sewage separation projects this year totaling nearly $17 million and wrapping up work on a third.

Clegg said the city requested and received an extension of its original deadline of Dec. 31, 2012, to Dec. 31, 2016, to separate all of its combined sewers. The goal, he said, is to make combined sewer overflows into the St. Clair River go away.

Combined sewer overflows from Port Huron had averaged 309 million gallons annually, he said.

"That has been reduced by 287 million gallons a year on average, a 93% reduction," Clegg said.

Marysville, which separated its sewers years ago, is expanding its sewage treatment plant to handle volumes such as the 2.1 million gallons released March 5 in a sanitary sewer overflow, Marysville City Manager Jason Hami said.

"We are in fact working on our wastewater plant expansion," he said. "We're expanding the capacity of the plant to add 2 million gallons of storage capacity."

The plant will have 1.5 million gallons of treatment capacity, he said, which translates to 3 million gallons of hydraulic capacity -- how much water can be held to treat. When completed in November, the plant should be able to store and treat up to 5 million gallons of sewage without releasing untreated or partially treated sewage into the river, Hami said.

"If we were fully expanded, (the March 5 discharge) would have been fully treated," he said.

The Marysville project is costing about $20 million with $8 million being paid for by the federal government; the two Port Huron projects started this year include federal grants of $1.06 million and $1.22 million.

The regional monitoring system, however, is being operated and maintained on a budget of $210,000 a year, Martz said. Only the intake at St. Clair is monitoring for all 28 chemicals the system is capable of detecting, and monitors at some locations, including Algonac, are shut down because there is no guarantee the system will continue past the end of the year, he said.

In St. Clair County, the system -- which is designed to test the water every 15 minutes -- includes monitors at water intakes in Port Huron, Marysville, St. Clair, East China Township, Marine City, Algonac and Ira Township. Other monitors are at New Baltimore, Mount Clemens, Grosse Pointe Farms, Detroit Water Works Park, southwest Detroit and Wyandotte. A communications network set up as part of the system still is functioning. The system also is designed to detect intentional releases into the water, such as from a terrorist attack.

Martz has floated a proposal for a surcharge to be added to the water bills of the 3 million households and businesses in the area served by the system. He estimates it could cost as little as $300,000 or as much as $1 million annually to operate at full capacity.

The surcharge, he said, would range from 25 cents to $1 annually.

"I haven't found one person, and I've probably talked to 500 people, maybe 1,000, who have told me that they wouldn't pay up to $1 a year to protect their drinking water," Martz said.

Patty Troy of North Street is U.S. co-chairwoman of the St. Clair River Binational Public Advisory Council. She said chemical spills into the river are considered beneficial use impairments because they threaten drinking water supplies.

She said monitoring is "vital because we recognize that spills by their nature are uncontrolled events.

"The water intake monitors provide a safeguard and assurance to the public their water supplies are safe."


Kristina Tranchemontagne of Cottrellville Township has the most personal of reasons to want to keep the monitors operating. Her daughter, Ashleigh, is a survivor of a rare kidney cancer called Wilms tumor. Another seven children in the Blue Water area have been diagnosed with the rare cancer since 2007.

"This is my home too, I don't want people to be scared and leave," she said.

She said she and the other families affected by Wilms tumor hope to get a bill passed in Congress to keep the water monitors running.

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