Professor asks for probe of illegal sewer lines, health ailments

Nov. 9, 2000
A rigorous program should be implemented to track down illegal sewer connections, particularly in urban areas where high counts of E. coli bacteria are found even during dry weather conditions, a Wayne State University professor has recommended.

By GENE SCHABATH

CLINTON TOWNSHIP, November 07, 2000 (The Detroit News)—A rigorous program should be implemented to track down illegal sewer connections, particularly in urban areas where high counts of E. coli bacteria are found even during dry weather conditions, a Wayne State University professor has recommended.

D. Carl Freeman, who analyzed pollution data compiled by the Macomb County Health Department, said he will urge state and Macomb environmental officials to start an investigation to ferret out illegal sewer connections.

Freeman and Joy Neumann, an engineering student at Wayne State, did the study under a grant awarded by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to Ralph Kummer, associate dean of engineering.

The purpose of the study was to help the state and the Clinton River Remedial Action Committee draft a new plan for cleaning up the pollution-plagued Clinton River and its tributaries.

Freeman also is reiterating his call for a health department study to determine if there are ailments associated with high bacteria counts.

The biological science professor would also like the health department to engage in a more rigorous monitoring of sewer outfalls.

Freeman said the study showed high bacteria counts are prevalent along the Red Run Drain, Bear Creek and some areas of the Clinton River based on tests conducted by health officials during dry weather. That is a sure sign of illicit connections, he said. Bacteria counts in these areas were more than six times higher than levels considered safe for human contact.

Illicit connections are sanitary sewer lines illegally connected to storm sewers. Sometimes, the homeowners and businesses are unaware of the connections.

"What this is telling us is these are places we need to look for illicit connections," Freeman said. "(Local and county environmentalists) have been studying (illicit connections) for nine years and they know they need an illicit disconnect program. And the most severe problem is down in Bear Creek and Red Run."

One of worst pollution cases ever associated to an illicit connection recently cropped up in Center Line, Freeman said. Bacteria counts exceeding one million colonies — more than 2,600 times above safe limits — were found in a relief drain at Van Dyke and Busch.

Freeman says that underscores the need for an intensive investigation to find the illegal connections.

Thomas Kalkofen, director of the Macomb County Health Department, said the county has applied for Clean Michigan Initiative funds for an illicit disconnect program. If approved, a program could be implemented next year.

"It's high on our priority list," Kalkofen said. "The way it works in a nutshell is you sample the end of the pipe, and if you have a high bacteria count you go back into the drain as far as you can to see who has the illicit connection."

The following are key excerpts from an extensive question and answer session with Freeman at his office at Wayne State.

Q: The study also showed that the bacteria problem worsened in about 50 of the 51 or so outlets that the health department tests in the Clinton River Watershed after a light rain. Your study showed the bacteria count increases four times the level than in dry periods. What does that mean?

A: "It means there's a problem with leaky septic fields, a problem with contaminants in run off, a problem with sanitary sewer overflows and a problem with combined sewer overflow. Any discharge of raw sewage into surface waters is illegal. Yes, if they didn't discharge it would back up into peoples' basements. But what the communities are admitting to is their sewer system is inadequate. The solution is sewer separation. It's expensive, but cities like Mt. Clemens, (and Eastpointe, St. Clair Shores and Roseville) are spending tens of millions of dollars on sewer separation and other pollution abatement programs."

Q: One of the surprising things about your study was the amount of sanitary sewer overflows coming from the city of Warren. That was kind of a surprise?"

A: "It is my understanding that according to the (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality), Warren had 500 million gallons (of discharges) reported over a three-year period. Of the communities reporting, more than 90 percent of the sanitary sewer overflows are coming from Warren."

Q: You were quoted recently at a public meeting that the pollution in some areas of the Clinton River Watershed is worse than conditions found in Mexico, China, India and other Third World countries. Is there a health risk associated with this?"

A: "Yes, this has the potential to be a health risk. There are a number of diseases we are worried about — rotavirus, Hepatitis A."

Q: Do you see these diseases in this area?

A: "There are people in southeast Michigan that have Hepatitis A, but we don't have data that pinpoints the incidents of diseases to specific locations within the watershed. One thing I'd like to see is a study that actually did that. It has been requested that a fact- finding study be done." (Macomb health director Kalkofen said if his department had the money and manpower, he would undertake such a study.)

Q: If children come in contact with certain parts of the Clinton River, could they be susceptible, vulnerable to some diseases?"

A: "Absolutely, they easily could be. I think the safest thing we can say is that there is a potential, and that potential is large enough that we should take a look at it."

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