Sterling Heights suit tossed over sinkhole repair costs

Mark Hicks

A judge dismissed a lawsuit by the city of Sterling Heights that sought to have Macomb County officials cover costs related to fixing a collapsed pipeline that sparked a massive sinkhole in 2016.

The city filed the lawsuit last year against the Macomb Interceptor Drain Drainage District and county officials, challenging a request that the 11 communities using the sewer line foot a $70-million repair bill after it ruptured in Fraser.

Sterling Heights leaders claimed that the Macomb County Wastewater Disposal District, former Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco and others failed to maintain the line and were financially responsible for the work.

In a ruling announced Thursday, Macomb Circuit Judge Jennifer Faunce dismissed any claim against the county, its Office of Public Works and the drainage district over the repair and collapse costs. The city’s complaint was not based on fraud or constitutional violations and “the record is devoid of any evidence” suggesting Marrocco, the county or others misrepresented the interceptor’s condition, she said.

“Moreover, the mere fact that Macomb County, as the disclosed agent of MIDD, previously invoiced Sterling Heights for MCWDD operating and maintenance costs does not establish — given the lack of breakdown of these costs and any evidence the costs are inflated or mischarged — that Macomb County fraudulently or unjustly collected either operating or maintenance costs,” the ruling said.

In a statement Thursday night, Sterling Heights officials said the opinion “effectively confirms the city’s contention that the county had knowledge of the critical condition of the drain and failed to inspect, repair or improve it even though the MIDDD contracted with the county to do so. Under these circumstances, the city is disappointed with the decision, and will review its options to continue to protect its ratepayers.”

Candice Miller, the county Public Works commissioner, welcomed the ruling.

“As we had stated from the beginning, this suit was misguided, as evidenced by the fact that not a single one of the other 10 communities involved in the MIDD joined Sterling Heights in the suit,” she said in a statement. “While we appreciate and respect the right of the Sterling Heights City Council to investigate its legal options, we believe it was always clear that suing the county was not in anyone’s best interest.

“At one point, this suit had threatened the ability of our team to secure the financing to pay for this project. It was only an emergency hearing on the case, in which Sterling Heights claims were also rejected, that allowed us to move forward and get the repair done last year.”

The interceptor transports sewage from 11 communities and some 40,000 businesses into a network that leads to a wastewater treatment plant in Detroit operated by the Great Lakes Water Authority.

When it collapsed under 15 Mile on Dec. 24, 2016, the resulting sinkhole affected sewer service for thousands of county residents and prompted more than 20 homes to be evacuated. Three had to be demolished.

The pipeline was fixed by late September; the work forced 15 Mile near Hayes to be closed for nearly a year.

Money for the repair project came from a $70 million bond sale and $5 million state grants.

Residents in the communities the interceptor serves — including Fraser, New Haven, Utica and Clinton, Harrison, Shelby, Macomb, Lenox, Chesterfield and Washington townships — are slated to pay an extra $25 annually for the next 25 years, Miller has said.