An astounding 2.3 billion gallons of sewage was dumped into Lake St. Clair and other local waterways due to the recent heavy rains, forcing the continued closure of three local beaches.
Metro Beach in Harrison Township and the two St. Clair Shores beaches — at Memorial Park and Blossom Heath — are off-limits because of high E. coli bacteria levels. The Macomb County Health Department is now reporting that the heavy rains which commenced last week on Wednesday caused sewer systems to overflow in 15 different locations along the lakeshore, the Clinton River and the river’s tributaries.
Of the total pollution discharged, at least 2 million gallons consisted of raw sewage. The volume of untreated sewage that was spewed into the waterways starting May 25 could rise dramatically once all the figures are in.
At the George W. Kuhn Drain in Madison Heights (formerly the Twelve Towns Drain), Oakland County officials sent 1.6 billion gallons of treated sewage gushing into the Red Run Drain over a 54-hour period on May 25-27. That volume is the equivalent of approximately 1.2 million backyard swimming pools. It also represents more water contamination than the county sometimes experiences in a year from all sewer system locations combined.
Overflows from the GWK Drain, located on the Macomb County border at Dequindre Road, travel through the Red Run and the Clinton River to the lake.
“Remember, this is the second-wettest spring on record. This is a matter of flushing,” said Steve Lichota, associate director of the county Environmental Health Services division.
Officials say the discharges are necessary to prevent sewer backups that would flood thousands of home basements. Yet, many of the locations that are on the Health Department’s list of polluters haven’t shown up in the statistics for years.
In Clinton Township, where upgrades were initiated a decade ago to improve the sewer pumps along the Clinton River and tributaries, seven of the relief valves were opened on May 25-26 a combined 29 times. So far, the township has not reported how many gallons of waste was released into the river.
“What happened was we had a really intense rain event. So, between the ground being saturated since April and the intense rain, things … got to the point where the system couldn’t handle all that rainwater,” said Mary Bednar, township director of public service.
In Fraser, where a major sewer system upgrade is nearly complete, raw sewage twice was dumped into the Sweeney Drain — another Clinton River tributary — but the city has yet to report the amount. Fraser had already dumped more than 1 million gallons of raw human waste into the waterways so far this year.
Other untreated sewage dumps were reported by the Almont and Center Line sewer systems.
At the Warren sewage treatment plant, 126 million gallons of partially treated sewage was discharged into the Red Run over the course of 98 hours, ending on Monday.
At the large retention basins, the discharges, which consist mostly of rainwater, are skimmed, settled and treated with chlorine before being released. Officials claim the outflow from these facilities is cleaner than the receiving waters of the lake and river.
Last month, a group that represents sewer and water contractors included Macomb in Michigan’s “Dirty Dozen,” based on counties with the largest sewer overflows. The report drew a sharp rebuke from county Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco, who said the county facilities — the Chapaton and Martin retention basins in St. Clair Shores — thoroughly disinfect their discharges in compliance with state clean water regulations.
At the time of the report, issued by the Michigan Infrastructure Transportation Association, Macomb County had experienced the second-highest volume of discharges in the state -- about 1.1 billion gallons in the first three months of 2011. In a matter of about three days, that number more than doubled.
As of Wednesday, the county has now experienced 3.6 billion gallons of pollution discharges in 2011.
Meanwhile, the beaches could reopen as early as today, under a new process that has stepped up the amount of water testing conducted at each swimming area in the county.