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Sterling Heights suit threatens sinkhole repairs

The Detroit News

The city of Sterling Heights filed a lawsuit Monday challenging its proposed share of the $75 million in repairs to a collapsed sewer line that caused a massive sinkhole in Fraser, a move that county official says leaves the county uncertain how to proceed with the repair project.

The sewer line, the Macomb Interceptor Drain, which runs beneath 15 Mile, collapsed on Christmas Eve, producing a 100-foot wide, 250-foot-long sinkhole that forced the evacuation of 22 homes. County officials have estimated repairs to cost $75 million, with the project to be completed in September.

The lawsuit comes as the county has learned that “other areas of concern” including other pipe fractures in the collapsed sewer line have prompted officials to ask for $6.2 million more for repairs.

The lawsuit will affect a bond sale to cover those repairs, said Candice Miller, Macomb County’s public works commissioner.

“Our financial adviser has advised us that because Sterling Heights has filed this lawsuit, that we will be unable to sell the required bonds to finance the repair of the collapsed 15 Mile sewer interceptor. It is unclear at this time how we will proceed with this project,” she said in a statement Monday.

The sale of about $70 million in bonds to fund the repairs was scheduled for next week, spokesman Dan Heaton said in an email Monday to The Detroit News.

Last month, the Macomb Interceptor Drain Drainage District board approved an assessment that apportioned about $22.2 million of the overall repair costs to Sterling Heights, officials said in a statement Monday.

But city representatives allege the assessment was improper and the Macomb County Wastewater Disposal District is contracted to operate, maintain as well as make improvements to the interceptor. Since the agency “did nothing to abate the conditions that likely caused the December 2016 collapse,” it should be responsible “for costs that were avoidable had MCWDD performed its duty in a competent manner,” Sterling Heights claimed.

“The current MIDDD board has a legal responsibility to pursue complete cost recovery from the responsible entities and individuals,” said Kevin Gleeson of Sullivan Ward Asher & Patton, P.C., the law firm representing the city. “To date, the MIDDD board has failed to make any demand on the county or its agency for payment of these costs, and for these reasons, Sterling Heights has no choice but to object to the improper cost assessment on behalf of its ratepayers.”

Last week, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley announced that a $3 million state grant would help repair the sinkhole. The funding supplemented a $2 million grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Miller said.

Meanwhile, during its meeting Monday, the drain district board approved a request from the repair project engineers to raise the construction cost of repairs $6.2 million.

The Anderson, Eckstein & Westrick firm cited extending a shaft and lining the sewer. A recent review of the interceptor “indicates numerous/continuous areas of concern throughout the approximate 3,700 feet,” the report read. “The video and corresponding report indicate hydrogen sulfide…attack, section loss, weeping, dripping and gushing leaks, mineral deposits (indicating previous leaks), multiple pipe fractures, exposed aggregate and concrete spalling.”

The review came after construction was completed last month on a bypass for the collapsed sewer line. The 11-foot-diameter pipe that transports sewage into a network that leads to a waste water treatment plant in Detroit operated by the Great Lakes Water Authority.

County officials recently described the system with eight pumps as an “engineering marvel” that prevents raw sewage from being discharged into the Clinton River. It’s expected to remain in place until all repair work is completed on the sewer collapse, officials said.

Occupants in 19 of the evacuated homes have since been allowed to return, but three other houses were condemned. Two houses have been demolished.