Official: Break in county sewer led to Fraser sinkhole

Charles E. Ramirez

The leaking sewer line behind the massive sinkhole on 15 Mile in Fraser is a county-owned main, an official said Friday.

“It is our line,” said Tom Stockel, construction engineer for the Macomb County Public Works Office. “It’s not the city of Detroit’s, it’s not Oakland County’s.”

The 100-foot-wide, 250-foot-long sinkhole that appeared last Saturday was caused by the collapse of the leaking Macomb Interceptor Drain sewer that runs under 15 Mile, the border between Clinton Township and Fraser.

On Sunday, incoming Macomb County Public Works Commissioner and former congresswoman Candice Miller plans to provide an update on efforts to repair the sinkhole. She will be joined by Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Fraser Mayor Joe Nichols.

The county-owned Macomb Interceptor transports sewage from 11 northern Macomb County communities into a network that leads to a wastewater treatment plant in Detroit operated by the Great Lakes Water Authority.

A 3-mile-long, concrete sewer main, the Macomb Interceptor runs west along 15 Mile from Garfield Road to ITC Michigan’s electric transmission lines corridor, Stockel said. The pipe is about 11 feet in diameter.

At the ITC corridor, the line connects to a giant sewer transmission line, the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor, which 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.

Stockel, who has been stationed at the sinkhole site since Christmas morning, said crews are working to build a temporary bypass for the ruptured sewer line on 15 Mile. The system will route sewage around the break in the line, he said.

The lead engineering firm on the repair project is Shelby Township-based Anderson, Eckstein and Westrick Inc., Stockel said.

“We’re working to construct the bypass and install de-watering wells to remove groundwater in the area,” he said. “If you’re digging, you don’t want it to be all wet. You want it to be dry.”

Nichols said efforts to fix the sinkhole continue to mount.

“It’s an amazing effort that’s been made over the past six days,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of progress.”

Stockel said he couldn’t speculate on how long it will take to repair the break or how much it will cost.

“We don’t have that data yet because at this point we haven’t been able to do any inspection on the break,” he said.

“But we want to get it fixed as soon as possible and we want to get it done as cost-efficiently as possible. There’s many, many people working on it.”

The method for fixing the sewer line, he said, hasn’t been decided.

“What we’re going to do for the actual fix is being talked about and worked on,” he said. “We’ll have to see what happens when we get there.”

A similar sinkhole occurred in 2004 on 15 Mile in Sterling Heights because of a break in the Macomb Interceptor about a third of a mile from the one in Fraser.

At the time, the sewer line was owned by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

Its 2004 collapse created a sinkhole that took months and tens of millions of dollars to fix.

It was also at the heart of a 2011 lawsuit touching on the corruption scandal of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

In legal filings, outgoing Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony 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.

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

Marrocco, a Democrat, lost his bid for re-election in November to Miller. He had served in the office since 1992.

In the meantime, Stockel said he and the office’s staff have been keeping city officials updated on their progress.

Macomb County assumed ownership of the line from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in 2009.

Stockel said the sewer line was inspected at that time and minor repairs were made in 2010. Typically, the Public Works Office inspects all of the county’s sewer lines and drains once every 10 years, he said.

He said that he doesn’t know why the area seems to be plagued by sinkholes.

“I’m not sure about that,” he said. “All I know is that it went in during the ’70s. I can’t speculate whether it’s age or not.”

Last weekend’s sinkhole forced the evacuation of nearly two dozen homes near the corner of 15 Mile and Eberlein.

Homeowners 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 stretch of road is scheduled to be closed to through traffic for several months, but businesses in that area remain open, and traffic to and from them is permitted.

Nichols said he will update residents on efforts to fix the sinkhole at 6 p.m. meetings on Jan. 9 and Jan. 31 at Fraser City Hall.