Sterling Heights hires law firm to handle sewer issues

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

The city of Sterling Heights said Thursday it has hired special legal counsel for issues related to the failed sewer line that resulted in a massive sinkhole in Fraser that damaged homes and will result in millions of dollars in repairs.

Sullivan, Ward, Asher & Patton will represent Sterling Heights, which is among the nearly dozen communities affected by the drain interceptor that collapsed along 15 Mile on Christmas Eve.

The firm has extensive experience in construction law, including underground infrastructure, city officials said.

“We simply cannot pass along costs to our rate payers that may have been avoided by due care and timely maintenance of the 15 Mile Road interceptor,” Mayor Michael Taylor said in a statement Thursday. “We have a legal responsibility to thoroughly investigate the cause of this catastrophic failure, determine if it was preventable, and pursue appropriate remedies for our residents and businesses.”

According to county officials, the cost to repair the Macomb Interceptor Drain Drainage District could exceed $100 million. Sterling Heights residents and businesses could be responsible for $32 million, city officials said. It could double to more than $60 million after financing costs are applied.

Bills for Sterling Heights residents could increase by more than 5 percent for the next 30 years, officials said, adding that a major industrial property owner, which they did not name, could be responsible for more than $2 million of the costs.

“Rate payers are justifiably price sensitive to any increases in water and sewer bills,” said City Manager Mark Vanderpool. “City officials must do all that is possible to control costs.”

A 100-foot-wide, 250-foot-long sinkhole emerged on 15 Mile near Eberline just east of Hayes in Fraser on Christmas Eve after the interceptor sewer main collapsed. The collapse forced the evacuation of 22 homes. The occupants of 19 of the homes have returned; three other homes have been condemned.

“Due to the complexity of identifying the cause or causes and the legal issues that will arise from these findings, the city owes a duty to its residents and businesses to fully investigate who should ultimately bear the financial burden for the third catastrophic failure of the 15 Mile Road interceptor in the past 40 years,” city officials wrote.

There have been at least two sinkholes along 15 Mile over the interceptor, the first in 1979 and the second in 2004. The 2004 sinkhole was in Sterling Heights about one-third of a mile from the current one. It took months and tens of millions of dollars to fix.

The other communities affected by the interceptor damage are Fraser, Utica, New Haven as well as Chesterfield, Shelby, Clinton, Harrison, Lenox and Washington townships. Selfridge Air National Guard Base is also affected.

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