Thursday, July 31, 2014

Michigan's Water Oligarchy

Sewage from the northern reaches of the Detroit regional sewer system in Oakland and Macomb counties is normally conveyed to the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant where treated wastewater is discharged to the Detroit River.

But when the system is overwhelmed by heavy rain, polluted water from northern storm and sanitary sewers is diverted to the Clinton River, which empties into Lake St. Clair.

Because the Clinton River watershed bears a legacy of severe pollution, it has been designated an Area of Concern (AOC) under an agreement between the United States and Canada.  Water quality in the river is the responsibility of federal, state and local agencies organized around a Remedial Action Plan (RAP), designed to clean up the river and lake.

The RAP was drawn up decades ago and has been updated periodically.  It is overseen by the Clinton River Public Advisory Council (CRPAC), which is administered by the Clinton River Watershed Council (CRWC), a 501(c)(3) non-profit.

The CRPAC has around 70 members.  But the truly public representation on CRPAC is about 20%.

With the tacit approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), CRPAC and its fiduciary, CRWC, hide behind a curtain of secrecy, refusing to comply with freedom of information and open meetings legislation.

A cursory review of the CRPAC membership roster will tell you why.  State and federal agency leaders must find a way to reach out for participants from civic groups such as the League of Women Voters, riverside and lakeshore home and business owners, service clubs like Kiwanis and Rotary, the Walpole Island First Nation, labor unions, environmental organizations, farmers, fraternal organizations (Elks, Eagles, etc.), ethnic organizations (NAACP, for instance), the Tea Party, the Green Party and the like.  

The days of CRPAC/CRWC being run like a private club for special interests must end.

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.  For example, Janicki Bioenergy claims it is on track to produce the next model of its small capacity wastewater processor, the S200, within a year. Some of S200’s characteristics are:
  • - processes about 24,000 gallons of sewage per day;
  • - produces 150-250 kW of electricity daily (serving 25,000 households at 10 watts each);
  • - produces 13,000 to 22,700 gallons of pure water per day;
  • - produces not quite three cubic feet of ash per day (i.e., no sludge);
  • - serves a population of 100,000 to 200,000 people;
  • - requires a staff of one or two people per shift;
  • - occupies a space of 37.5 ft. x 95.5 ft.
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 Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) in metropolitan Detroit, EPA and MDEQ supervise overlapping responsibilities of agencies and organizations tasked with restoring degraded watersheds like those of the Clinton and Rouge rivers. [Updated January 29, 2016.]

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 (e.g., immense storage tunnels) having been determined too expensive, new methods of controlling polluted overflows (principally, a number of relatively small retention-treatment basins) 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.