Fraser begins sewage release into river after sinkhole

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Fraser — The city's mayor said Monday night that crews have begun pumping sewage into the Clinton River after rainfall threatened to affect residents' basements near a sinkhole that could keep some from returning to their homes for two weeks.

Local and county officials on Monday braced residents near 15 Mile and Eberlein for a long, costly fix, officials said.

City officials, in consultation with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, decided to dump the sewage after saying rainfall could lead to overflows into basements.

"(In) the last couple of hours, the weather conditions, while record temperatures, have deteriorated and in lieu of impacting people's basements, it's currently being discharged," said Fraser Mayor Joseph Nichols, who said the discharge began between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. "Engineers are working on all the necessary precautions and the MDEQ were made aware."

The update followed a special meeting at Fraser’s City Hall two days after a large sewer interceptor collapsed on Christmas Eve, severing public utilities in the area and forcing the evacuation of more than a dozen homes, throwing holidays into chaos. Most residents are being allowed to return to gather possessions but cannot live in the homes for now, and 15 Mile near the 100-foot wide, 250-foot long sinkhole will be closed for several months.

City, county and state officials are working on re-establishing gas, water and electrical service and building a temporary road that will serve as a detour around the site and let residents access a nearby senior citizens center. 

Monday’s meeting at City Hall drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 50 people, and the crowd buzzed with concerns and complaints about a lack of insurance coverage, inability to enter or leave a senior citizen complex near the sinkhole, impact on property values and disruption to Christmas plans.

“My heart goes out to you,” Nichols told the crowd. “I know that people here are very upset and understandably so. We are upset for you. We are looking for answers. If we stay strong, we will get through this … and we will get home.”

Nichols said he planned updates for residents at 6 p.m. Jan. 9 and Jan. 31 at City Hall. He said the city should be through the "triage phase" by Jan. 9; by Jan. 31, "we'll have residents not directly impacted back in their homes."

The collapse is the third to happen in the area in about 40 years and came 12 years after a smaller collapse led to a $50 million fix that took 10 months to complete.

Residents pushed local and county officials to identify what caused the collapse but were told it was too early. State Rep. Steve Bieda said the state can help investigate the root cause of the collapse.

“The immediate thing is to make sure everything is stabilized and people are taken care of and to try to protect property to the extent we can,” Bieda, D-Warren, told residents. “It’s obviously a very emotional thing and I’m very concerned about residents and businesses in this area.”

The sinkhole on Christmas Eve emerged due to a leaky sewer line between Utica and Hayes roads, authorities said. The row of homes most affected and evacuated were at the corner of 15 Mile and Eberlein Drive. Police closed 15 Mile between Utica and Hayes as a precaution and the city declared a state of emergency in the area.

Residents at three neighboring homes near 15 Mile and Eberlein were hit hardest by the collapse and could be forced to wait much longer to return to their homes. Sue and Jerry Albu evacuated Christmas Eve after awakening to the sounds of their home’s foundation cracking.

“The entire house could slide into this developing sinkhole at any time,” said engineering consultant Fritz Klingler, who is working on repairs. “The house is very unstable.”

The Albu’s lawyer, Frank Guido, questioned whether repair work performed after the 2004 collapse weakened the interceptor and related infrastructure.

“I’m concerned,” Guido told city officials.

The 2004 sinkhole was repaired, inspected two years later and repairs made in 2010, Klingler told the lawyer.

The concerns voiced by residents Monday ranged from health, to practical matters such as drinking water, to the impact on school bus routes and mail delivery.

“It’s the little things,” said Thomas Bender, who lives several houses away on the Eberlein cul-de-sac “You still got to pay your bills.”

Resident David Bogdan, citing the 2004 collapse, had a simple, elusive question.

“Why is this happening?” Bogdan asked.

He also questioned the wisdom of pumping sewage into the Clinton River if the sinkhole worsens.

Pumping sewage into the river and county drains is a drastic, but possibly needed, measure, said project manager Louis Urban of Anderson, Eckstein and Westrick Inc.

“If there is an enormous rain or a complete collapse of the interceptor,” Urban said.

Local florist Anthony Michael has flushed holiday profits in recent days because his store is near the sinkhole and inaccessible.

The Flower Peddler owner lost about $10,000 worth of Christmas flower sales over the weekend, he estimated.

On Monday, he prepared to dump unsold inventory.

“Or I’ll probably run a sale: poinsettias for 50 cents,” Michael said.