Water authority CEO faces questions from Detroit council over pump station failure

Ben Wilson Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Detroit — The head of the Great Lakes Water Authority reiterated Tuesday that she was unaware of a power outage that compromised a major city pump station days ahead of historic June rainstorms.

Sue McCormick told Detroit City Council members during an update on flooding in Detroit that the electrical issue was not reported to GLWA leadership and that an investigation into the rain events is underway.

She expects that the probe also will provide clarity on who knew what, and when.

"We have begun our independent investigation. I anticipate ... it is quite possible that we will find that there may be something somewhere in the system where someone knew (of the outage)," McCormick told council members, adding "but no one at the leadership was aware."

McCormick faced questions from council in response to a Monday report by The Detroit News that revealed a power outage at the Freud pump station sat unfixed for two days before the "1,000-year" rain event hit and before the authority contends it knew about it.

The Freud pump station, on Freud Street, in Detroit July 22, 2021.

The Freud and Conner Creek pump stations are responsible for pumping water out and away from the east side of Detroit, including the chronically flooded Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department officials said they have received about 25,000 flood claims stemming from the June 25 and 26 rain events. The department has 33,000 overall between June and a separate rain event earlier in July, said Bryan Peckinpaugh, a spokesman for DWSD. 

Detroit Council President Brenda Jones pressed McCormick for answers and a plan to ensure "if there is a problem, that the leadership is aware of what the problem is, and that it's being reported and addressed immediately."

"You guys need to create something that exists between you all so that one person can't say they didn't know," Jones added. 

Officials have said an independent contractor dug into wires June 23, causing cable and conduit damage and causing Freud to be short five of eight pump stations when the rains began June 25 and remained without power until June 30. 

McCormick previously said the rainfall "overwhelmed the system" and that the issue "was not caused by any single pumping station or any single element within the regional system." She said she learned of the outage the morning of June 25.

Within the past decade, at least two post-flood reports commissioned by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department have recommended changes at the Freud and Conner Creek facilities and highlighted issues with the pumps at the stations. 

The water authority took over the Detroit system in 2015 under a long-term lease agreement negotiated as part of the city's bankruptcy. 

The Great Lakes Water Authority has invested about $10 million in design and construction in the two pump stations in recent years and is in the design phase of a roughly $250 million improvement project. Construction is expected to take eight years.

Detroit Councilman Scott Benson noted the city's "court mandated relationship" with GLWA but asked Tuesday whether "it's a time that we reevaluate."

"If GLWA  cannot handle the system nor manage it properly, then give it back," Benson said. "We see flooding in our basements, we see stormwater problems throughout the city. Is this a management issue?"

David Whitaker, head of the council's Legislative Policy Division, noted the prospect is "very complex."

"Certainly we can dig into it, but it would not be a question that could be answered here today," Whitaker said. 

Council on Tuesday also discussed plans to form a task force to examine the system's operations and ways to ensure residents are protected and to boost communication and accountability. 

McCormick said she understands the frustration and that GLWA is working to determine what additional safeguards can be put in place to protect residents.

"We need to have a frank conversation about is how do we get a handle on these storm issues that caused major flooding," she said.

On July 2, McCormick told reporters that the authority was informed of an outage affecting Freud pump station June 25, hours before the 1,000-year rain event struck Metro Detroit. 

Jill Wilmot, a spokeswoman for DTE Energy, has said the Great Lakes Water Authority had been the one to notify the Detroit Public Lighting Department of the issue on June 23. But DTE later said it would defer to GLWA on when it found out about the power issue.

DTE Energy said the power outage occurred on June 23 when a third-party contractor hit an underground wire that fed energy from the Ludden substation to the Freud pump station. DTE was notified by Detroit Public Lighting Department "within the first two hours of the partial outage," Wilmot said.

The city of Detroit has declined to say whether it was responsible for Ludden substation but said an independent investigation would "determine exactly what happened."

The confusion over who is responsible for the electrical power supplying Freud station comes seven years into a 2014 agreement between the City of Detroit and DTE Energy that allows the city to slowly leave the public electricity business and transfer its customers to DTE Energy. 

Prior to the 2014 agreement, the Detroit Public Lighting Department supplied that power.

Freud pump station is one of the 40 remaining locations that have yet to be transferred to DTE Energy, Wilmot said. The company hopes to have Freud transitioned to DTE by the end of the year.