August 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

Flood unleashes torrent of sewage in Metro Detroit

4.5B gallons untreated; gov presses on for fed aid

As Metro Detroit communities grapple with huge costs to homeowners and the environmental consequences of last week’s massive storm and floods, state and local officials are taking steps to obtain federal disaster relief.

About 4.5 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage were dumped into local streams and rivers as a result of the Aug. 11 deluge, according to a preliminary report Friday from the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The 4.5 billion gallons of sewage would be the equivalent of submerging Detroit’s Belle Isle in about 14 feet of water.

The preliminary overflow numbers underscore how overwhelmed the infrastructures in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties were when 3½ to 6 inches of rain fell across the region in just a few hours. High volumes of rainfall led to combined sewer and retention basin overflows.

State officials aren’t sure when a final report will be ready. Phil Argiroff, permit section chief of the DEQ’s Water Resources Division, noted the department is still waiting for a solid number on released sewage from the George W. Kuhn Retention Basin in Madison Heights, which is a large facility in Oakland County.

Combined sewer overflows occur in areas where sanitary sewer lines are connected with storm water lines. During heavy rains, the amount of water in the system overwhelms what treatment plants can handle, and untreated sewage can be discharged into local streams and rivers.

This is what happened to sewage from facilities in Detroit, Southgate, Dearborn, Inkster, Dearborn Heights, Redford Township and Port Huron.

On Friday, Gov. Rick Snyder sought a formal damage assessment that could result in a disaster declaration and release funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help in Metro area recovery efforts for flood-ravage communities.

Hard-hit Warren, for example, estimates damage to residential, commercial and government properties at about $200 million.

“This assessment is critical to help confirm reported damages and make our case to the federal government for assistance to our affected communities and Michiganders,” the governor said.

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts said the relief can’t come soon enough. He said he is incensed the governor and federal government didn’t act sooner and said the average Warren household suffered $10,000 in damages.

“The bottom line is we have a tremendous amount of financial encumbrances,” Fouts said. “The business damage aside, the city damage aside, what I’m most concerned about is residents because we have 22,000 buildings, most of them resident structures, that have suffered considerable water damage.”

Fouts said his city cannot dig its way out of the disaster without help.

“I told the governor myself it was both the state and the federal government’s responsibility to help us out. We’re a donor city. We pay a lot of taxes to the state and to the federal government. We get very little in return. We need financial aid for our citizens.”

Mark Hackel, the Macomb County executive, said with all the estimated damage that was done in his area, officials had to “establish a case” for aid by “assessing damage appropriately to get that information compiled” to then turn over to the state and federal government.

To chronicle damage more efficiently, Hackel said county officials put together an online reporting form that the state and FEMA accept. For those without Internet access, a phone bank was set up, he said.

“It provides people with a necessary resource for their problem at hand,” Hackel said. “I know people are upset and whether or not we’re going to get anything, those are all secondary issues that need to be addressed. I’m not here to be a critic. My job is to figure out how do we deal with the immediacy of a need. If FEMA doesn’t come through, these people are going to be in a dire situation financially and left holding the bag.”

State officials say they aren’t ignoring 21 complaints about possible scams that have come to the attorney general’s office related to flood issues.

But a spokeswoman said it is too early to tell if they are tied to a specific scheme to defraud consumers.

In Oakland County, officials, waste haulers and health officials all agreed Friday that this past week’s flood emergency may still take weeks to address before things return to normal in some communities.

Berkley estimates it is a week behind in trash pickups and is pressing the city’s public works trucks and crews into service. Huntington Woods planned to call in 40 trucks to haul out waste over the weekend.

In Royal Oak, which has estimated $120 million in personal property damage and losses, 50 to 60 trucks were expected to be in neighborhoods this weekend to clear away mounting trash.

Royal Oak Mayor Pete Ellison also left a voice mail message offering tips for residents, especially senior citizens, to properly clean and disinfect their basements. And he says volunteers are available to help do the work.

George Miller, head of Oakland County’s Emergency Services and Public Health divisions, was arranging with a second landfill to accept trash from haulers driving directly from the communities to the landfill, rather than stopping at local transfer stations in Troy and Madison Heights.

Bob Jackovich, operations director for the Southeastern Oakland Resource Recovery Authority — the solid waste handler for 12 Oakland County suburbs — offered advice to affected residents.

“Patience. People have to be patient,” said Jackovich, who is juggling work schedules for 20 different hauling companies trying to clear curbside debris.

“We are doing everything we can to clean up the mess, but it’s going to take time,” he said. “I expect we are optimistically still about two weeks out before things get back to normal for some communities.”

“It is important to remove water-damaged property from basements quickly,” Miller said. “This is sewer water and it is a health concern. Basements must be cleared out, carpeting, sofas, bedding, etc. removed, and even flooring in some cases. Drywall needs to be removed at least to the stain level and all areas need to be cleaned and disinfected.

lfleming@detroitnews.com
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