Class action suit filed against DTE over power failure at key Detroit pump station

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Metro Detroit residents have filed a class action lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court against DTE Energy on allegations that the company didn't do enough to ensure reliable electrical power to the Freud pump station. 

The suit filed Wednesday maintains that, although Freud has yet to be transferred to the DTE system, the energy company is in large part responsible for day-to-day operations for public electrical customers in Detroit. 

The late June flooding was "utterly foreseeable" given weather predictions and the June 22 power outage that hobbled the key Detroit pump station, the lawsuit said. 

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

“Defendant DTE is functionally responsible for overseeing, approving and managing the operation and maintenance of the Ludden substation to ensure that the Freud Pumping Station is fully operational and can pass excess water flows during wet weather conditions," the complaint said. 

David Dubin, a lawyer representing the Metro Detroit residents, said their complaint will eventually include the Great Lakes Water Authority, the city of Detroit and other individual cities. The suit was filed by residents from Grosse Pointe Woods, Grosse Pointe, Grosse Pointe Farms, Grosse Pointe Park, Detroit and Harper Woods.

The lawsuit currently lists as defendants John Doe contractors believed to be involved in the outage and DTE Energy, which declined comment because of pending litigation. 

At least two other suits have been filed seeking damages related to the flood — including another class action suit filed by Ven Johnson Law on behalf of about 400 Wayne County residents. But the suits so far have focused on the water utilities involved, not electrical utilities. 

Freud was short five of eight pumps ahead of the June 25-26 rains and flooding because of a June 22 power outage. 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. 

Officials have said a third-party contractor struck underground wires leading from Ludden substation to Freud on June 22, damaging a cable and conduit key to the pump station's power supply. 

Great Lakes Water Authority staff noted the outage in a log book but contacted energy providers, per policy, rather than alert authority leaders, CEO Sue McCormick told the authority's board Wednesday shortly after the board accepted her resignation.. 

McCormick has said she didn't learn about the outage until June 25, hours before the rains came. She said staff had believed the pump station, even down some pumps, could handle the rain. Instead, the system was overwhelmed when up to 7 inches of rain occurred. 

DTE Energy has maintained that it is not responsible for the electrical supply to Freud because Freud has not yet transitioned to DTE's system. Still, the company said it assisted the Detroit Public Lighting Department when the power went down.

Under a 2014 agreement between Detroit and DTE — entered as the city emerged from bankruptcy — Detroit has been transferring its public customers over a roughly seven-year period to the DTE system, which served only residential and commercial customers prior to the agreement. 

Freud is one of 40 properties that still have not been transferred to DTE"s system, but is scheduled to by the end of the year. 

DTE told The Detroit News last week that it learned of the outage on June 23, within a couple hours of the incident, and provided support to Detroit Public Lighting Department. 

But on Thursday — a day after the suit was filed — DTE spokeswoman Jill Wilmot said the company "originally misspoke." She said DTE didn't learn of the outage until June 26 and it was the Detroit Public Lighting Department that provided support to the Great Lakes Water Authority, not DTE, Wilmot said.

Dubin argued that, although the pump station has not yet transferred to DTE, the company essentially has oversight of the pump station's day-to-day operations as the influence and capacity of the Detroit Public Lighting Department diminishes. Dubin also noted that GLWA pays its bills to DTE, not the Detroit Public Lighting Department. 

“DPLD operates with a bare bones staff that reportedly consists of only four employees, whose duties are almost exclusively related to complying with the oversight and direction of DTE” as the company prepares “to eventually take full ownership and control of the entire system," the complaint said. 

The complaint argued that DTE was negligent in its handling of the outage. The company, the complaint argues, knew about the outage within two hours of it occurring, didn't fix the problem fast enough and didn't notify the public of the issue. 

Dubin said he hopes any decision in the case will include provisions requiring real fixes to the system. 

He filed a separate class action lawsuit after the 2016 flood, focusing again on failures at the Freud and Conner Creek pump stations. Part of the settlement there was an about $1 million investment into Detroit's sewers.