Suit: Macomb officials ignored signs of sewer collapse

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
An area where a broken sewer line caused a football field-sized sinkhole on Christmas Eve 2016 in Fraser.

Pontiac — The legal battle over who's responsible for a sewer collapse that caused a giant sinkhole in Fraser is heating up, with three contractors and an inter-county drainage district pointing the finger at Macomb County officials.

In separate lawsuits filed this week in Oakland County Circuit Court, METCO Services, Jay Dee Contractors, Inland Water Pollution Controls and the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor Drain Drainage District allege Macomb County officials knew for years about serious underground problems that resulted in the mass cave-in on Christmas Eve 2016.

The drainage district complaint names the  Macomb Interceptor Drain Drainage District, the Macomb County Wastewater Disposal District and Macomb County as defendants.

“I hated to do something like this (lawsuit),” said Jim Nash, the Oakland County water resources commissioner who is on the board of the OMIDDD. “But we were told they were going to come after us for insurance and that’s not right. We believe history shows there serious problems that were never addressed there and that is what caused the collapse. Not a contractor.

“They claim they have reports that show it, but we haven’t seen the evidence,” he said. “We believe it's because they never addressed problems — they didn’t even get insurance for their contractors. That’s why they are going after ours.”

The Oakland County suits were filed the same week that the Macomb Interceptor Drain Drainage District sued the contractors in Macomb County Circuit Court, blaming them for the collapse and $75 million in resulting repair costs.

The MIDDD system serves 11 communities in Macomb County. The Macomb and Oakland arms of the OMIDDD combine in massive pipes 80 to 100 feet underground that ultimately move wastewater and sewage to a treatment facility in Detroit.

While no one was physically injured by the sewer collapse, 20 families were temporarily displaced and a section of 15 Mile on the border between Fraser and Clinton Township had to be closed for a year.

All four of the Oakland County complaints cite internal county and state reports that the plaintiffs say show Macomb County sewer officials were warned for nearly seven years by engineering experts of serious defects and environmental concerns regarding the Macomb Interceptor Drain.

 The suits also say the sewer officials failed to remedy the problems, instead blaming them on contractors’ “human error” during a $170 million rehabilitation project. Contractors hope judges will clear them of any blame in the collapse.

The Oakland County lawsuits allege:

  • Macomb County failed to properly inspect, maintain and prevent degradation of the drain, leading to the eventual sewer collapse
  • That sometime in 2009, when Macomb County acquired the drains from the city of Detroit and took over supervision, county officials received multiple reports of leakage of groundwater and sediment into the drain.
  • Macomb County sewer officials were advised of concrete degradation in several areas from hydrogen sulfide gas.
  • Engineering reports provided to Macomb County officials in 2011 estimated .18 to .29 inches of pipe wall were “ being eaten away per year” at the location of the later collapse.

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller declined to comment Thursday on the Oakland County lawsuits, which the Macomb County lawsuit referred to as “improperly filed in an attempt to circumvent proper venue in this case which lies in Macomb County.”

“We have no comment at this time other than to let our lawsuit speak for itself,” said Miller’s spokesman Dan Heaton.

In announcing the Macomb County lawsuit this week, Miller alleged in a statement that the contractors were responsible for $70 million in damages stemming from the sewer collapse.

That complaint, assigned to Macomb Circuit Judge Joseph Toia, alleges the OMIDDD issued multiple contracts for rehab work, including to Inland and Jay Dee, both of which hired METCO as a flow control subcontractor to oversee the proper and safe control of waste during the repairs.

Macomb officials said experts they hired have reviewed the sewer system’s data and believe METCO negligently deviated from proper, safe protocols, creating at least eight “water hammer” and pressure surge events between May 28, 2013, and Jan. 18, 2016, that were ultimately responsible for the sewer collapse.

Miller took over as Macomb County public works commissioner in January 2017.

“These are good companies, but mistakes were made,” she said. “There was negligence on the part of the contractors. This is one of the reasons why you carry insurance. We think it is very reasonable to expect the insurance provider of these contract companies to cover the costs from these mistakes.

“We were hoping and willing to reach a settlement with the insurance provider but they have not been willing to negotiate with us and have left us with no choice but to bring this lawsuit.”

Miller also described the OMIDDD lawsuit as “very unfortunate.” Her position as public works commissioner places Miller as one of three commissioners on both the OMIDDD and MIDDD boards.

“We did not file a legal claim against OMIDDD, nor do we plan to in the future,” she said in a statement. “In fact, the MIDDD actually makes up two-thirds of OMIDDD, so we would in effect be suing ourselves even if we did want to make a claim against OMIDDD.”

Nash said Miller “inherited” problems from her predecessor, Anthony Marrocco, who lost his re-election bid to her.

“None of this was her (Miller’s) doing,” Nash said. “Nor was it anything we did. And as far as where any of these (lawsuits) should be heard, we would actually prefer it be in a impartial, third-party venue in another county, maybe St. Clair County, so we can have an open dialogue where everyone is comfortable.”

(248) 338-0319