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E-Coli issues on Red Run

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Despite dry summer, E. coli pollution levels remain high

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

By Chad Selweski
Daily Tribune Staff Writer

After 16 years of trying, officials admit that they still have failed to end disturbingly high pollution levels in many county waterways, particularly the county drains in Warren.

In the past, authorities have said that a significant portion of the E. coli bacteria flushing into Lake St. Clair derived from waste from humans, pets and waterfowl that was washed into a vast network of storm drains during heavy rainfall.

But even in this summer of drought-like conditions, E. coli counts in some drains continue to hover near levels that are 30 times higher than clean-water standards.

On some days, the amount of bacteria in these streams, typically related to a flow of feces, is 400 or 500 times the acceptable safe levels.

That polluted water makes its way to the lake through the Clinton River and other tributaries and is partially responsible for the huge number of beach closings experienced again this summer on Lake St. Clair.

At the same time, many homeowners who live far from the waterfront are not aware that their local drain poses potentially serious health problems.

If someone waded into — or fell into — one of these creeks, they could face skin rashes, nausea, diarrhea or exposure to viruses.

The dirtiest waterways are Bear Creek, the Red Run Drain and Lorraine Drain, all located in Warren. Macomb’s largest city tried to separate its sanitary sewers from its storm sewers in the 1960s and 1970s, but some of the pipes below ground are still illicitly discharging raw sewage into the storm drains, said acting city engineer Todd Schaedig.

“As the years wear on, we continue to find these cross-connections,” Schaedig said, adding that the city and county have already tracked down hundreds of illegal discharges in Warren over the past several years.

In some cases, industrial firms or entire neighborhoods unknowingly send their sewage directly into the waterways. Sewer workers trying to track down the culprits are burdened by a mesh of sewer pipes “like spaghetti” that were constructed below street level decades ago.

Doug Martz, chairman of the Macomb County Water Quality Board, said the disturbing link between residential and business bathroom waste and surface water pollution was evident recently when he visited the huge outfall of the Lorraine Drain, where it dumps into Bear Creek, near 13 Mile Road and Van Dyke.

Martz said he saw used condoms hanging on the metal grid of the 11-foot-wide pipe, and syringes lying on the banks of the creek.

“There are so many buildings out there (in Warren), all you need is one (sewage) discharge and that can cause high rates of E. coli,” said Steve Lichota, associate director of the county’s Environmental Health Division.

After beach closings became a summer ritual on Lake St. Clair starting in 1994, experts said that a portion of the problem was the flushing effect that comes with rain storms. In addition to human waste flowing through illicit connections, feces from dogs, geese, ducks and other wildlife are washed away into storm drains and creeks.

But this year is different. Precipitation levels through June 30 for Macomb County were already nearly five inches below last year, and the summer-ending figures that are due soon will likely show a dramatic reduction in rainfall.

So, why is it that pollution levels in numerous drains and tributaries are still alarmingly high?

Some say that bacteria may be breeding within tiny drains during this hot, humid summer, and even the slightest rainfall may be pushing it into the waterways. Others say that many more illicit connections are waiting to be found.

Brent Avery of the county Public Works Office said that tracking the pollution can be “puzzling … arduous, expensive and frustrating.” Some pipes are too small for workers to walk through, others are too full of water to allow for remote-TV testing. Often, brightly colored dye is pumped through the drain system to pinpoint illegal outfalls.

But testing and tracking is much more efficient in the north end of the county — where all the open drains have been walked by inspectors at the Public Works Office and Health Department — than in places like Bear Creek, much of which runs underground, below the sprawling General Motors Tech Center.

Avery is part of a metro area work group, formed by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, that is analyzing E. coli levels in waterways. Avery, who runs the Chapaton sewage retention basin in St. Clair Shores, is also leading the charge among government officials who say that sewer system overflows have been unfairly blamed for beach closings.

The sewage discharges at Chapaton and other facilities are skimmed, settled and chlorinated before release into the waterways, Avery said, and the outfall is actually cleaner than typical lake water near the shore.

In contrast, the intricate network of storm drains in Metro Detroit dumps far more fouled water into the lakes and rivers than does the sanitary sewer systems, according to the DWSD work group.

“The E. coli may be less concentrated in that storm water,” Avery said, “but the volume is hundreds of millions of gallons for one storm — and we’re talking about untreated discharges.”

Pollution “hot spots” could be studied in more detail if the E. coli went through a DNA analysis to determine if the source was human or animal waste. The Public Works Office has conducted some DNA testing with the help of grant money, but a countywide effort would be extremely costly.

Overall, the Warren drains are not the only waterways that continue to display disturbingly high pollution levels during this dry summer.

Others that have raised red flags this year are: the Clinton-Harrison Relief Drain, located on Shook Road at the Clinton Township/Harrison Township border; the Sweeney Drain, located on 15 Mile Road in Fraser; the Clinton River at Garfield Road in Clinton Township; and the Middle Branch of the Clinton River at Heydenreich Road in Clinton Township.

Martz, the environmental activist who emerged as the county’s first and only Water Quality Board chairman in 1998, has been battling lake pollution since the disastrous summer of 1994, when Macomb’s beaches were closed for most of the summer. Many years later, the Harrison Township waterfront resident said his frustration with high E. coli levels in county drains has nearly reached a breaking point.

“I’ve been studying Bear Creek, Red Run and the Lorraine Drain for 16 years,” he said. “I’m about ready to hang it up.”

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