Union, wastewater plant operator spar over fires

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Fires at a Detroit wastewater treatment plant have ignited a war of words over safety between the union representing its workers and its operator.

The series of fires began with a blaze that broke out about 5:30 a.m. Friday at the wastewater treatment plant on Jefferson, southeast of Interstate 75 in Detroit. It happened on a sludge conveyor belt in an incinerator, Great Lakes Water Authority officials said.

Employees immediately were evacuated and no one was injured, according to the water authority. The fire did not affect the plant’s operations, and there was no risk to the environment, officials said.

A second, related fire was reported around 11 a.m. Saturday, according to Detroit Fire Department officials.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 207 blamed the fires on the “chronic understaffing, deferred maintenance and organization chaos” at the facility created by the GLWA and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

“GLWA management and MDEQ are to blame for this costly accident, which could lead to further rate increases, and not the workers who are forced to labor under these unsafe conditions,” union officials said.

GLWA officials argue the plant isn’t understaffed and Friday’s original fire had nothing to do with staffing levels.

“Protecting our employees’ safety is of paramount consideration to the GLWA. And while we take seriously the concerns raised by AFSCME Local 207, the GLWA can say with certainty that the area where the fire occurred was properly staffed for operating conditions, and additional plant staff were on site and available to work that process area if warranted,” said Sue McCormick, GLWA’s CEO, on Monday. “Understaffing was not the cause of the fire.”

McCormick also pointed out the union no longer represent the authority’s employees at the plant or at the other facilities it operates.

Susan Ryan, AFSCME Local 207 president, said her local and AFSCME Local 2920 — which both represent workers at the GLWA and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department — are in the process of merging. She said workers like her at the authority are covered by Local 2920’s collective bargaining agreement.

Ryan also said hotspots created by fire reignited at least four times over the weekend.

GLWA officials confirmed hotspots were behind minor fires over the weekend. They also said the water authority implemented monitoring protocols with reports every half-hour to ensure a fire would not spread.

McCormick said there were no additional flare-ups as of Monday.

“As is our practice, we will review the causes and response to the recent fire to determine lessons learned, and identify opportunities for considered improvement while continuing service to our customers,” she said.

The GLWA was created last summer when officials with the state, Detroit and Oakland and Wayne counties agreed to lease Detroit’s water and sewer system to the authority for the next 40 years.

The GLWA is the water service provider for Detroit’s suburbs, while Detroit residents continue to be served by the city’s water department.

McCormick said before a transfer of operations, Detroit’s water department went through a restructuring program. Under the effort, it reduced job classifications from 257 to 57, ended 35 years of federal litigation and oversight of the wastewater plant’s operations and resulted in upgraded equipment and technology at the plant.

Ryan said the number of the wastewater plant’s workers represented by the union has been cut in half to about 150 people. She said the MDEQ has gone along with the authority’s staffing reductions.

The fire at the wastewater treatment plan is “the canary in the coal mine and a public health disaster on the scale of Flint could be next,” said Ryan, referencing Flint’s lead-contaminated water supply crisis.

“This is not just the question of a fire. It’s a question about how the authority runs these facilities. We think this is an equivalent of what’s happening in Flint,” Ryan said.

But McCormick said the union’s allegations are unfounded.

“The GLWA takes its responsibility to provide our customers with safe, reliable and quality water very seriously, and any implication otherwise is simply untrue,” she said. “Our No. 1 priority is the safety of our employees and the quality of our product. Our commitment to public health and safety is at the core of everything we do.”

cramirez@detroitnews.com

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