Monday, July 21, 2014

A Plan to Dismantle Detroit's Wastewater Treatment Plant

The wastewater treatment branch of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is too big and unwieldy.  It has a history of bumbling personnel responsibilities, equipment maintenance, accounting and planning.  It has had more than it can handle in purchasing replacement parts, coping with combined sewer overflows and disposing of sludge.  The department has been rife with bribery, extortion, bid rigging and fraud.  These are but examples.

In the recent past, two-thirds to three-quarters of the department’s employees have been on the sewage treatment side of the department’s operations -- too many people with too few skills.  For decades, city politicians used department jobs for political patronage.  An independent study found that DWSD (then employing about 2000) was overstaffed by 80%.  Today, I’m told, the department employs about 1500.

Apparently, the department’s books have been so thoroughly cooked that Detroit’s emergency manager has refused to release annual audits for the last two fiscal years.

For the last seven years, DWSD has had a residential water assistance program (DRWAP) to benefit impoverished city residents.  And for those same seven years, DWSD has been collecting regular donations by generous city customers who agreed to include small contributions via their own water bill payments.  

Of course, any balance that donations wouldn’t (indeed, didn’t) cover would be passed along (unbeknowingly) to ratepayers in general (80% of whom are in the suburbs).

As nearly everyone knows by now, DWSD has let slide delinquencies on about half of the city’s residential water bills, some for months, some for years.  Where has the money donated for the needy gone the last seven years?  Don’t expect DWSD to tell.

Also, for long periods, sometimes years, DWSD didn’t even bother to send out bills, much less collect payments, for fees charged for (preventable) stormwater runoff owed by commercial and industrial property owners in the city.  As with residential delinquencies, these further revenue lapses were made up by all the ratepayers who were current on their accounts.

The fix for this monumental disaster will take a lot of money and many years, but it’s unavoidable.  A regional water authority is essential.

One step at a time, responsible suburban leaders must expand their small, existing wastewater treatment plants and build new ones, employing sound, transparent management and modern, efficient, odorless technology.  

And each step along the way, another piece of DWSD’s dysfunctional wastewater treatment facilities can be dismantled.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Detroit, Poverty and Water Shutoffs

The way news media in Detroit have portrayed thousands of water shutoffs by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in recent months for non-payment of water bills, you would think the problem just suddenly sprang up.  Not so.

Excerpts from “The Plight of the Waterless in Detroit” by Lara Zielin, LSA Magazine, adapted in The Cutting Edge, September 28, 2011:

“The questions deepen as the shutoffs continue. Water bills are also on the rise, even though one in six Detroit workers is unemployed and more than 30 percent of Detroiters live below federal poverty levels. In 2005, more than 40,000 Detroit residents had their water turned off.”

“In 2005, [Dr. Ann Rall] and workers with Michigan Welfare Rights drafted and submitted the Water Affordability Plan (WAP) to the Detroit City Council. WAP proposed that city funds, supplemented by charitable donations, would help ensure at-risk Detroit residents would never be in danger of a shutoff again.”

“The Detroit City Council passed the WAP resolution in 2005, and even allocated seed funding of $2.5 million to support the program. WAP was gaining ground until DWSD put forth its own plan to ease shutoffs: The Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program (DRWAP). DWSD’s director at the time, Victor Mercado, spearheaded the program’s effort, which had much the same structure as WAP: seed funding, and charitable giving (Detroit residents voluntarily agree to a donation every month on their water bill) providing a pool of money to help Detroit residents pay their bills.”

“DRWAP was instituted in 2007, and claims that 3,000 people have enrolled in the program since its inception.”

Does any of this sound familiar?  “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
(Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, Les Guêpes, January 1849)

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Dysfunctional Sewer Systems and the Law of Nuisance

-- fifth in a series about stormwater and sewers --

Neither Lake St. Clair nor the western basin of Lake Erie ever became the cesspool into which Boston Harbor had degenerated by the early 1980s.

The deplorable condition of the harbor is described in Prof. (Harvard Law) Charles Haar’s memoir recalling his days as special master in litigation grappling with more than a century of neglect.  The book’s title is Mastering Boston Harbor (Harvard University Press, 2005).

Haar writes that everything you can imagine going into toilets washed up on the beaches of metropolitan Boston.  As more and more equipment broke down, dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into Boston Harbor became routine.

Sewage plumes rising to the water’s surface could be seen close up or from the air.  The smell was awful.  Large swaths of the harbor’s bottom were covered in life-suffocating glop that scientists referred to as “black mayonnaise.”

Aided by a form of judge shopping (hey, what can I say, this is Boston we’re talking about), municipal officials in Quincy, Massachusetts brought suit in state court.  Disgusted by what he’d seen on a Quincy beach one morning, the city attorney organized and spearheaded the city’s foray into a legal tempest.  The presiding judge was a stalwart reformer.

The city’s complaint against various local agencies operating the region’s sewage system alleged violations of four Massachusetts statutes and, more fundamentally, asserted common law nuisance.

Haar’s discussion of the law of nuisance is both lucid and instructive (pp. 40-47).  Excerpts:

“The black-letter statement is that the law of nuisance can be used to terminate a “noxious use” or avert a “public harm” that unreasonably interferes with the lives or property of the general public…” (p.44)

“The doctrines of the law of nuisance go back to the twelfth century.  And so the equitable remedy of an injunction against a public nuisance, one of the earliest milestones in English common law, has been used in a host of British and American judicial decisions.  Owing to its amorphous parameters -- and the flexibility it provides -- defining the law of nuisance is a never-ending task for judges in state courts… It has been applied with considerable openness to new uses and types of regulation.” (pp.44, 45)

“Nuisance law is a matter of state, rather than federal, law.  And as it has been developed by the states it is flexible and evolving, always subject to interpretation and expansion or contraction -- with a consequent reluctance of courts to find it preempted by federal action.” (p.45)

“The truly exciting aspect of nuisance law is that it is not frozen in the concerns of a past period, but over the centuries has been reinterpreted in the light of contemporary learning and fresh understandings, reflecting technological advances, newly perceived hazards, and pressing societal changes.” (p.46)

In less than two years, the parties to the suit, working together under a rigid, court-imposed schedule, laid the foundation for the mammoth reorganization and clean-up that ensued.

Under the umbrella of nuisance theory, those seeking clean water can disregard inter-jurisdictional squabbling and finger-pointing among state, regional, county and local officials; name all parties in any way associated with misconduct or neglect causing environmental damage; and ask the court to order abatement of the nuisance.

No task for the faint of heart, but essential, perhaps, if we’re going to preserve our natural heritage in the waters of southeast Michigan.

Thanks to Saul Simoliunas for recommending Haar’s book.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Managing Silt Runoff and Sewer Overflows

Many governmental or quasi-governmental entities are responsible for water quality in southeast Michigan.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) oversee most of them.

In addition to regulating the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), EPA and MDEQ supervise overlapping responsibilities of agencies and organizations tasked with restoring degraded watersheds like those of the Clinton and Rouge rivers.

Several decades ago, a legacy of severe and persistent pollution along the U.S.-Canadian border (including the Detroit River) led to a bi-national agreement and the designation of a number of locations as Areas of Concern (AOC), requiring extraordinary efforts to clean them up.  The Clinton River and Rouge River watersheds were among them.

Beneficial uses in these two watersheds were found to be impaired by pollution.  Organized attempts to address these concerns are called Remedial Action Plans (RAP).

Unfortunately, some of the causes of those impairments continue to this day.  For example, “Historical point source discharges and ongoing nonpoint sources are responsible for sediment contamination in the mainstream Clinton River.”

The following excerpts are from the Oakland County (MI) Water Resources Commission’s website, apparently quoting the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ);

“Why is erosion and sediment control important?”

“Sediment is the greatest pollutant by volume entering our lakes and streams. Sediment is the product of uncontrolled erosion. Everyone in Michigan is affected by erosion and off-site sedimentation. Erosion and sedimentation result in: loss of fertile topsoil, filling of lakes and streams, increased flooding, damage to plant and animal life, and structural damage to buildings and roads.”

“Construction is one of the major causes of erosion in Michigan. Without proper planning and management, over 100 tons of sediment per acre per year can be generated on some construction sites." 

After heavy or prolonged rainfall, silt runs off of ground that has been disturbed, i.e. loosened or dug up, as occurs at construction sites.  The regulation of silt runoff in Michigan leaves a lot to be desired.

The silt runs into lakes and streams or into combined (stormwater and human waste) sewer systems which lead to wastewater treatment facilities.  Silt causes turbidity in natural bodies of water, clogs sewers and imposes an added burden in treatment processes.  

During the heaviest rains, when the deluge threatens to overwhelm treatment plants, untreated or partially treated wastewater, laden by degrees with toxins, pathogens and sediment, is diverted into lakes and streams.  In our region, that means the Detroit River and Lake Erie.

For decades, water quality agencies in the region have been unable to manage such combined sewer overflows, which occur in the billions of gallons each year.  

Earlier schemes having been determined too expensive, new methods of controlling polluted overflows have been devised in the past two or three years and are being implemented.

Citizens, taxpayers and water services ratepayers would be well advised to learn about the new plans and watch to see how well they work.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Wastewater Treatment Technologies

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) employs the activated sludge method of wastewater treatment.  This is a biological process that uses air and a floc composed of bacteria and protozoa.  The end products are cleaner (but not drinkable) water, sludge and gasses (that aren’t captured).

Anaerobic digesters are a more common technology used in such facilities.  Anaerobic digestion occurs naturally.  “Anaerobic digestion is a collection of processes by which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen.”  Along with water and other things, it produces methane, which is captured and used to generate electricity.  

In Orange County CA, a system which cost less than $500 million recycles wastewater to drinking water in three-steps: microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet light with hydrogen peroxide. It’s expensive to operate, but not as much as desalinating seawater.

Singapore has adopted a similar wastewater treatment procedure for application after conventional methods.  Its NEWater technology produces extremely pure water that is sold for special industrial uses or mixed with reservoir water and treated in the customary manner for drinking.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Fines and Fees Alone Won't Improve Water Quality

Are some local governments more interested in the revenue from fines and fees for environmental transgressions than achieving the underlying environmental goals?

Consider, for example, the fees charged to businesses for maintaining impervious surfaces like roofs and parking lots from which stormwater or snowmelt rushes to city sewers, burdening wastewater treatment plants.  Why aren’t those businesses motivated to install rain gardens and pervious concrete?

Or consider the apparent preference in many cities to fine construction contractors for silt running off bare ground or piles of excavated dirt into storm sewers during rainstorms, clogging the sewers and complicating wastewater treatment processes. 

From Macomb County Public Works website: "This is a portion of the 200 tons of sediment and debris that was removed from the Sharkey Drain..."

If contractors were compelled to install silt fencing between the exposed soil and city drains, then, regionwide, thousands of tons of silt would be kept out of the sewers.  The willingness of contractors to pay the fines rather than remedy the problem indicates to me that the fines are too low.

In many municipalities, mayors, city managers and council people give loud and frequent lip service to environmental concerns and pass a multitude of resolutions and ordinances, but in the municipal departments where the rubber hits the road, those concerns and resolutions and ordinances often get short shrift.

Too frequently, those who do the legislating seem to think that’s the end of the problem, that their intent will be self-executing.  Either that or the city poobahs are throwing around terms like “environment” and “green” and “water quality” merely as cheap public relations gimmicks.

To meet and overcome these challenges, constant public vigilance and action are necessary.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Of Trees, Stormwater and Boondoggles

The Detroit Water & Sewerage Department (DWSD) spent years in collaboration with the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) getting ready to plant trees in Detroit neighborhoods and parks as part of a larger plan to control combined sewer overflow.  Scores of meetings were conducted and thousands of personnel-hours expended. DWSD contracted with Greening of Detroit, a non-profit organization, to do the actual planting.  

In a typical year like fiscal 2012-2013, approximately 1500 trees were planted over several weeks in the fall and another 1500 over several more weeks the following spring.  

All three organizations knew or should have known that, at the rate of 3000 or so trees per year, they wouldn’t even be replacing the trees in the watershed that are lost every year through blight, wind, rot, insect infestation, lightning and old age.  

Thus, combined sewer overflow (the justification for the project) is not reduced by a single drop.  I would love to see what the actual total cost of this boondoggle is.

The inclination of DWSD, SEMCOG and Greening to plant trees sparsely along residential streets and in city parks suggests to me that those organizations are more interested in the decorative value of planting trees, much like the city’s discontinued neighborhood beautification program, only now it’s being paid for by DWSD’s ratepayers, as well as taxpayers generally.

Compare the work done privately by John Hantz of Hantz Woodlands.  He, too, spent several years jumping through hoops to get his tree planting project approved by the city. He assembled some vacant city lots, rounded up 1200 volunteers and on one Saturday last month, planted 15,000 trees.

Impressed?  Then look at this.   A private-public partnership in New York City had anticipated planting 100,000 trees per year with a goal of one million trees planted by 2017.  But they’re almost at 900,000 now, so they’ve reset the completion date to 2015.  Granted, Detroit is no New York City, but consider how NYC did it.  They organized with the help of one auto company (Toyota), several foundations and a very active celebrity.  Detroit has all of that and more.  It’s just a matter of how it’s put together and by whom.

We deserve a bigger bang for our buck.