Fraser sinkhole may put more homes at risk

Charles E. Ramirez, and Jim Lynch

While damage projections from a massive Fraser sinkhole caused by a sewer line rupture grew on Wednesday, Macomb County’s longtime drain commissioner was hard to find.

The hole that developed Saturday along 15 Mile between Utica and Hayes appears poised to swallow at least three nearby homes four days later, municipal officials said.

“From what I’ve been told by our engineers and everybody who’s surveyed the property, those homes are permanently impacted,” Fraser Mayor Joe Nichols said of the trio of homes on Eberlein Drive.

Bob Cannon, supervisor of neighboring Clinton Township, agreed.

“I think three of them are going to end up in the sinkhole,” he said. “Even though I’m not an engineer, it appears those three homes are the ones most likely to be damaged.”

Meanwhile, several local officials expressed concern about the lack of support this week from the outgoing administration in Macomb County’s Office of Public Works. Drain Commissioner Anthony Marrocco, a Democrat who lost his bid for re-election in November after being the commissioner since 1992, has been scarcely visible during the ordeal. Former U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, a Republican, will take over next week.

Despite the emergency, which displaced several homeowners over the holiday, Nichols said Wednesday he has had no contact with Marrocco or his staff.

“I have been communicating with the commissioner-elect’s office,” Fraser’s mayor said. “The commissioner’s office has not contacted me nor has any of his staff. I’ve been dealing with Candice Miller. She and her team have hit the ground running even though they don’t take office until the end of the week.”

Brian Baker, Sterling Heights’ financial manager, will work for Miller as chief deputy commissioner when she takes office Sunday.

“I can tell you that (Marrocco) directed his staff after the election not to assist in transition efforts whatsoever,” Baker said Wednesday. “To me, that’s unconscionable.”

Marrocco was not available for comment Wednesday, according to his office.

“Even if there are sour grapes from a lost election, there is no reason you shouldn’t be here working on a situation like this,” Baker said.

Sinkhole raises questions

Officials said the sinkhole was caused by the collapse of a leaking sewer line that runs under 15 Mile, which is the border between Clinton Township and Fraser.

A similar situation occurred in 2004 in Sterling Heights, creating a sinkhole that took months and tens of millions of dollars to fix. Some have questioned whether the repair work on the nearby 2004 sinkhole weakened the interceptor and related infrastructure.

Questions have begun to arise over how line inspections and maintenance have been handled since Macomb County took over maintenance of this portion of sewage line from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department several years ago.

This particular sewage line along 15 Mile was at the heart of a 2011 lawsuit touching on the corruption scandal of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. In legal filings, Marrocco accused Kilpatrick, former Detroit Water and Sewerage Department chief Victor Mercado and contractor Bobby Ferguson of stealing money from a repair fund created to fix the 2004 sinkhole in Sterling Heights.

Despite earlier Marrocco protests, a federal judge in March 2007 ruled Macomb County and 11 communities served by the sewage line were responsible for the entire $53 million in repair costs for the Sterling Heights sinkhole.

Cannon said he based his statements about the three houses impacted by the latest sinkhole on information he has received from officials dealing with the problem.

“I’ve sat in several meetings with the stakeholders involved, and we’ve talked about the likelihood of what could happen,” he said. “I’m hoping the information is wrong.”

Cannon said the owners of the home closest to the sinkhole, Sue and Jerry Albu, have been told it could be lost.

“I was at a meeting the other day where she begged to be allowed back into her home, but they wouldn’t allow her to do it because it’s so dangerous,” he said. “They know that home is going to slide right in. I’m 100 percent sure that first home is totally demolished. The other two homes appear to be at risk.”

Cannon said he didn’t know if their neighbors have been informed.

“At some point, a decision will have to be made about demolishing” the homes affected by the sinkhole, Nichols said.

Stabilization work continues

Fraser’s mayor also said work to stabilize the area continues.

“The triage is continuing in the area,” he said. “Our efforts to establish a plan for residents to return to homes that haven’t been permanently impacted are also progressing.”

Nichols said he has provided updates to Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and staff as well. The mayor noted the sewer line blamed for the problem doesn’t fall under the county executive’s jurisdiction, but is the responsibility of the Macomb County Wastewater Disposal District that is overseen by the county public works commissioner.

“However, he is aware of all events and expressed his deep concern for the people and families this is affecting,” Nichols said about Hackel in a Wednesday Facebook post.

He added he has spoken with the staff of Congressman Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, which has offered to aid residents affected by the sinkhole.

Nichols concluded his Facebook post with: “As always my prayers are with each of you and your families ... and I will be your voice looking for a full and accurate understanding of WHY this happened ... and I ask that you share this update so everyone is aware.”

Nichols said he plans to update residents at a 6 p.m. meeting on Jan. 9 and Jan. 31 at Fraser City Hall.

The 100-foot-wide, 250-foot-long sinkhole that appeared over the weekend forced the evacuation of several homes near the corner of 15 Mile and Eberlein.

Homeowners who were ordered out of the sinkhole area are being allowed to return to gather possessions but not to live in the homes.

Police have closed the road between Utica and Hayes as a precaution and the city declared a state of emergency in the area. The road near the sinkhole is scheduled to be closed for several months.

It’s not clear at this point, Nichols said, if the leaky sewer line behind the sinkhole is the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor or another sewer line in the area.

“The sewer line has not yet been named” as the definitive culprit, he said. “Our engineers are working to stabilize the area as best as possible, and I’m sure at the same time, discovery is going on as well.”

The 22-mile-long Oakland-Macomb Interceptor, a giant sewer transmission line, which is as large as 12 feet in diameter in some areas, serves 850,000 residents in 25 municipalities in Macomb and Oakland counties. The two counties purchased the sewer line from the city of Detroit in 2009.