Detroiters seek answers over sewage backups

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Frustrated east-side residents on Wednesday demanded answers from the regional authority operating the city’s water, saying they are living in fear that sewage backups that caused millions in damages this summer will be repeated.

July and August rain events caused widespread backups mainly in the city’s District 4, which borders Grosse Pointe and the Detroit River. Similar incidents hit the area in 2011 and 2014.

“Every time it rains, our front yard is a puddle. It’s like a swimming pool,” Jacqueline Richmond, a 50-year resident of Jefferson-Chalmers, told the board of the Great Lakes Water Authority, adding she has video of sewer water coming out of her basement toilet. “I know you guys don’t know how that feels.”

Richmond was among a couple dozen long-time neighbors who crowded the board room Wednesday at the water building on Randolph to address the board for more than an hour.

Resident Jeffrey Herron added citizens are “hostile” over the wait for a long-term solution.

“We need some answers,” he said. “We don’t need no more Ferris wheel rides…we know what’s been happening. Let’s take care of that problem.”

Heavy rains prompted 800 damage claims for more than $11 million, city-led sanitation efforts as well as a class-action lawsuit.

District 4 Councilman Andre Spivey also spoke out at the meeting Wednesday along with Council President Brenda Jones. The pair contend residents still are waiting to hear how future problems will be avoided and “rightfully deserve answers.”

Spivey said the lack of information from the authority has been “unprofessional, unacceptable and not the way a government entity should serve the public.”

“Property has been lost, family histories and valuables have been destroyed and are but a memory. Insurance policies have been canceled ... and the psychological effect of worrying whenever it rains is too much to quantify,” Spivey said. “When will we get the answers that we deserve?”

Both Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department and the authority launched reviews following the rainstorms.

In November, DWSD released a report that revealed less than half of the pumps meant to keep the water at bay had been working.

The summary from DWSD’s engineering report noted the Conner Creek Pumping Station, Freud Pumping Station and Conner Creek Combined Sewer Outfall facility serve as the downstream outlet in storm events and their operation directly affects flooding in the Jefferson-Chalmers area.

“It is expected that 14 out of 16 pumps would likely have been required during these rain events,” the Nov. 14 summary notes. “Only 6 pumps ran on July 8 and 7 pumps ran on August 16.”

The water authority said Wednesday its review is still being finalized. The process, it said, has been delayed by “intervening events,” including the pending class-action suit and city water department’s decision to file claim against GLWA.

During Wednesday’s meeting, GLWA CEO Sue McCormick noted the pending litigation limited her ability to speak about the issue but stressed to the crowd she’s “sympathetic to the burden that this has caused you” and “even in an environment marked by litigation,” the authority has been “as open as possible.”

The October lawsuit contends the city and water system operators were negligent, should have known about the system’s inadequacies and taken reasonable steps to repair them.

DWSD has since filed the cross claim against the water authority. Attorneys for GLWA have denied the allegations in court filings.

GLWA said it has made a number of operational changes and identified upgrades to improve the system’s ability to handle intense rain events. Last year, its board approved more than $12 million in related capital expenditures.

It also said all eight storm pumps at the Freud Pumping station are in service as well as the eight pumps at the Conner Pumping Station. Various upgrades and system monitoring efforts are also ongoing.

July 8 rains dumped nearly 3 inches near Detroit City Airport flooding parts of Wayne County, according to figures from the National Weather Service. On Aug. 16, another 2.65 inches were recorded over a few hours, soaking Detroit, flooding a half dozen freeways and delivering similar rainfall totals to communities throughout Metro Detroit.

DWSD received more than 1,000 claim filings and settled several hundred of them. About 200 that were submitted were sent back because they lacked adequate paperwork.

The water department is paying the claims out of its budget. But a court intervention may be needed to resolve a dispute over how the costs should be shared between DWSD and the water authority, Director Gary Brown has said.

Spivey on Wednesday also told the board he was “appalled” a news conference was held Friday to discuss water issues that took place Downriver this month and that those residents are expected to get answers this week. Meantime, he said, Detroiters continue to wait.

That meeting, held in Detroit, addressed water concerns after Downriver communities reported cloudy and sulfur-smelling water coming from their taps. Water authority officials said a comprehensive report is expected this week.

“I would hope there is no intentional disparity of treatment being given to paying customers of the GLWA, and I see how this can be perceived,” he said.

In response to Spivey’s assertion, GLWA said it “values all of its customer communities equally” and provides each with the highest level of service.

“The authority is committed to working with council member Spivey to keep him informed as GLWA continues to optimize its system,” the authority added.