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General Motors Bear Creek

The Oakland Press (, Serving Oakland County

E. coli high in creek at GM Tech Center

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

By Norb Franz
Macomb Daily Staff Writer

Green dye poured into a sanitary sewer flows heavily from a storm sewer pipe at the GM Technical Center into the Bear Creek, north of 12 Mile Road.

Health officials say company trying to track down underground source

County officials will continue monitoring the Bear Creek in Warren after dangerously high levels of raw sewage were detected in areas of the stream inside the General Motors Technical Center.

Efforts by the company to alleviate the underground problem that caused the sewage to be discharged from a storm sewer pipe into the stream also will be closely watched, according to an administrator at the Macomb County Health Department’s Environmental Services Division.

“We’re letting GM figure out how it was caused,” said Steve Lichota, the division’s associate director. “It’s not an easy thing to (determine).

“They have to fix the problem. They’re working with us on that.”

The Bear Creek has long been considered one of the most polluted waterways in Macomb County. Much of it runs beneath the surface, but it flows into the Red Run Drain, which connects to the Clinton River and eventually flows to Lake St. Clair.

The maximum level of E. coli bacteria considered safe for human contact — such as swimming or wading — is 300 colonies of bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. In recent years alone, water samples taken from Lake St. Clair with E. coli readings at that level or higher have resulted in the closing of beaches to swimming in the lake, hundreds of times.

As part of regular weekly testing of the Bear Creek, samples taken upstream — near 11 Mile and Mound Road— from the GM Technical Center showed levels were as high as 30,000 colonies. In early January, officials detected a blockage of a sanitary sewer line near a mobile home park in Warren near 11 Mile Road, causing some untreated raw sewage to dump into the storm sewer. That problem was corrected.

But in mid-February, E. coli levels downstream at 13 Mile near Chicago Road, by the northern edge of GM’s 1-square-mile engineering campus, remained high numbers. Last week, company and city of Warren officials were on hand as county environmental officials collected samples at six locations from the stream within the Technical Center. After two were particularly troubling, officials pinpointed the likely source of sewage flow into the Bear Creek, to a spot west of GM’s Alternative Energy Center building, near the center of campus.

“They noticed the sanitary line was severely backed up,” said Dave Aspen, GM’s environmental manager at the Technical Center. “It was backed up almost to the manhole.”

Officials conducted a dye test, pouring green dye into the sanitary sewer. A short time later, the dye flowed heavily into the Bear Creek from a storm sewer pipe that should only carry rain and snow melt.

At no time did raw sewage back up into any drains inside GM buildings, Aspen said. The company hired a sewer contractor that cleared the sanitary line buried below ground. A video camera snaked through the line detected some cracks, causing officials to speculate that some sewage leaked out and got into the storm sewer.

After the blockage was cleared last Thursday afternoon, normal flow resumed. A short time later, no dye was seen flowing into the creek, according to a discharge report filed by GM with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Aspen said the latest samples taken Friday by an independent lab at six different locations at the Technical Center show that levels are “back to normal” for this time of year in the Bear Creek. According to reports from Merit Laboratories, Inc., of East Lansing and provided to The Macomb Daily by GM, the test results showed E. coli colonies-per-100 milliliters of: 870, 550, 610, 730, 870 and 580.

The GM environmental manager said officials do not know how long the sanitary sewer system had a blockage.

“We don’t really have any idea. We don’t know if it was a continuous backup or sporadic,” Aspen said.

“Cracks still need to be repaired and GM is going to do that as soon as we can,” he added.

The Macomb County Water Quality Board is expected to be briefed on the discharge at its meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Health Department offices, on Elizabeth Road in Mount Clemens.

“Nothing surprises me,” board Chairman Doug Martz said.

Martz, the most outspoken advocate for Lake St. Clair since high E. coli levels forced the closure of Metro Beach to swimming beginning in 1994, said Bear Creek has long held the dubious distinction as the most polluted waterway in Macomb County.

The most recent detection of high E. coli shows the vital need for continued funding of testing of waterways in the area, he said. Such sampling helps detect illicit connections of sanitary sewer lines to storm drains, or untreated sewage being illegally discharged directly into streams and the Clinton River.

For now, county officials and GM representatives would not discuss whether they expect fines to be levied against GM for the untreated sewage that flowed into the stream.

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