Sterling Heights —City officials accused Macomb County on Thursday of ignoring “dire” warnings and failing to properly inspect and maintain the pipeline that collapsed in Fraser last December, causing a massive sinkhole.
At issue is a county-requested report done in 2013 that identified repairs and further evaluation were necessary to avoid a “catastrophic collapse” because of corrosion issues in the Macomb Interceptor Drain, which is owned by Macomb County. But city officials charge that warning was largely ignored by the county.
During a Thursday press conference, city officials reiterated that despite those documented warnings of a potential collapse, no inspections or repairs were done.
“We have uncovered powerful new evidence that four years before the sewer collapse, the county was warned there was severe corrosion, but the county ignored the dire warning and did not perform any inspections or repairs,” said I.W. Winsten of Honigman, an attorney for the city, during a Thursday press conference. “That collapse never should have happened.”
The report was done by Giffels Webster, an engineering firm engaged by the county to advise it regarding the Macomb Interceptor Drain Drainage District in 2013. The report found that required repairs identified in 2006 and 2010 were ignored, and to inspect the sewer interceptor to determine necessary repairs would cost about $2 million.
According to the report, it “was estimated that 0.18 to 0.29 inches of sewer wall was being eaten away per year. Unaddressed, this ongoing corrosion could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in costly repairs to the sewer infrastructure as well as potentially leading to catastrophic collapse.”
The report went on to note Macomb County has “… not yet performed detailed inspections of the entire (MIDD) system, many of which are 40 years old and experience high levels of corrosion.”
City officials say the report is proof the county failed to fulfill its contractual obligation to the Macomb Interceptor Drain Drainage District to inspect and maintain the pipe, which led to the collapse of the line.
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel took a strong exception to the accusations levied by Sterling Heights officials Thursday. He questioned why the city wasn’t more aggressive in dealings with 24-year public works veteran Anthony Marrocco before voters replaced him last November with Candice Miller.
“This absolutely is not a Macomb County issue,” Hackel said. “What it is is an epic failure on the part of the mayor and others not to challenge Tony (Morocco). It was their responsibility to ask those questions. The county drain commissioner is the person who is responsible for dealing with drains. Tony Morocco was in charge, and each one of the communities that have a drain, Tony worked for them on drain matters.
“Eleven member communities belong to MIDD. But none of them questioned Tony about anything. It was the mayor’s responsibility to find out from Tony what was going on. It was certainly not the county executive’s responsibility.”
The 100-foot-wide, 250-foot-long sinkhole that opened up on Dec. 24 was caused by the collapse of the leaking sewer that runs under 15 Mile, the border between Clinton Township and Fraser. It transports sewage from 11 communities and some 40,000 businesses into a network that leads to a wastewater treatment plant in Detroit operated by the Great Lakes Water Authority.
The collapse also forced the evacuation of 22 homes, and three of those houses had to be condemned. Two of the houses were demolished
It has cost more than $70 million to repair, which is being passed on to local residents and businesses throughout the drainage district communities, including Sterling Heights. Money for the project came from a $70 bond sale and a $5 million grant from the state. It will cost residents of the communities served by the sewer an extra $25 a year for the next 25 years, according to the Macomb County Public Works Office.
Winsten, Mayor Michael Taylor and City Manager Mark Vanderpool said Thursday that county residents and businesses are paying for the failure of former county officials to do their duty. The city has been trying to fight payment responsibility through litigation.
“This is not just about the $70 million,” he said. “This caused a sinkhole in Fraser, people lost their homes, businesses were forced to cope with roadblocks and some were closed off for about a year. We expect governments to protect us, and when they sit back and do nothing, people’s lives are affected. We have to make sure this doesn’t happen again, and we will hold you accountable.”
City officials made it clear that Miller was not responsible for the problem. Miller commissioned an inspection of the rest of the sewer line, which found that 3,700 feet of the pipeline was in imminent danger of collapsing. To stave off catastrophe, the section of pipe was reinforced with a new pipe, which was cemented in place.
“She inherited this problem,” Winsten said. “She’s done a very good job in handling repairs. This arises from the past administration, and the county needs to step up and acknowledge that the government failed the people.”
Miller, who officially replaced Marrocco right after the collapse, responded to the city’s accusations Thursday afternoon.
“My priority since I took office on Jan. 1 of this year has been to fix the 15 Mile Sewer collapse,” she said in a statement. “We’re also engaged in a comprehensive review of all of the infrastructure under the jurisdiction of our office.
“... I remain committed to two goals, clean water and clean government.”