Grosse Pointe Park Mayor Michele Hodges brought moon pies to the city council meeting on Feb. 13 to symbolize her excitement about the city’s new relief sewer.
Referred to as an “extreme emergency relief valve” or EERV, the Grosse Pointe News reported that Hodges proposed changing the name to the “EERWeee like in, weee, yeah, we did it!”
“We shot for the moon, and we got it,” Hodges said.
What the city got was a wastewater construction permit from Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) to build a relief sewer that will allow it to discharge human waste just upstream from the Detroit River during heavy rains. The discharges would come from the pumping station located at Patterson Park, which sits roughly a mile upstream from the mouth of the Fox Creek in Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers Neighborhood and around four miles from Belle Isle Beach.
“This is not a common thing, creating new sewer outlets to water bodies,” Patrick Droze, a city engineering consultant with OHM advisors, said during the meeting.
The estimated cost for the EERV is nearly $3 million, with part of it covered by a $130,000 grant from the Grosse Pointe Park Foundation and a $900,000 donation from the prominent Grosse Pointe Cotton family.
But the construction permit only provides permission to build the infrastructure, not use it. EGLE didn’t require Grosse Pointe Park to obtain a permit for the new sewer because all sanitary sewer overflows are illegal under the federal Clean Water Act – and, therefore, cannot be permitted.
If Grosse Pointe Park were making authorized wastewater discharges into state waterways, it would need to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit, which would require public comment and an evaluation of how the discharge will impact waterways.
Sanitary sewer overflows contain primarily untreated waste, including raw sewage. Such discharges are typically the result of accidents like extreme weather or deteriorating infrastructure like blockages, line breaks, sewer defects, power failures, and vandalism, according to the EPA.
Grosse Pointe Park’s new EERV would be far from the only facility discharging sanitary sewage to local waterways. But such discharges typically come from facilities intended to treat or sequester sewage or overflow points built into older systems. In this case, the state is allowing the city to build new infrastructure where the sole purpose is to make illegal sewage discharges. And these discharges would not be screened or receive any level of treatment.
Grosse Pointe Park is taking this step in response to events like the floods in the summer of 2021, which filled thousands of basements across Metro Detroit with water and raw sewage.
Grosse Pointe Park City Manager Nick Sizeland defended the project by saying that during extreme rain events, “if we are overflowing due to the magnitude of the storm, we have nowhere to go besides residents’ basements.”
Some Detroiters expressed less excitement than Grosse Pointe Park officials.
Donna Givens-Davidson, president and CEO of the Eastside Community Network, said that Grosse Pointe Park’s move is “at the very least, tone deaf.” She said Grosse Pointe Park and the east side of Detroit were both hit hard by the 2021 flood, and it seemed that there was a chance for the cities to come together and push for changes that could protect both communities.
“Instead of having an alliance, Grosse Pointe Park decided, ‘Let’s figure out how to fix what’s wrong so that we are protected’,” she said.
If it works, Grosse Pointe Park’s relief sewer could shield its residents from basement sewage backups at the expense of its downstream neighbors in Detroit, and even some in the city itself, like those in the Windmill Pointe area. This follows past conflicts between Detroit and its eastern suburb that has seen majority-white Grosse Pointe Park try to close its borders with its majority-Black neighbor.
This won’t be the first time Grosse Pointe Park has directed untreated sewage into Detroit waterways. Under a 1938 agreement with Detroit, it regularly discharged to Fox Creek via an outlet at Alter Road. That finally stopped after a 1995 class-action suit filed on behalf of Detroit residents forced the city to partially separate its sewers, construct the pump station in Patterson Park and seal the Alter Rd. outfall. But recent extreme rainfall events have resulted in basement backups in Grosse Pointe Park and Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood five times since 2011.
Projects like the one Grosse Pointe Park is building could multiply as the climate emergency brings heavier rains and communities look for an immediate fix. Detroit is also considering plans for relief sewers on the east side that could create similar issues.
Some residents and environmental advocates say that cities need to make system-wide changes to their infrastructure instead of relief sewers, like repairing sewer lines, adding capacity, and sequestering more stormwater in upstream communities to protect both homes and water quality.
“The big thing we want is more regional capacity: upstream communities having retention areas (where) they can hold stormwater during a rain event before sending it to the wastewater treatment plant,” Erin Stanley, director of climate equity at ECN, who regularly meets with residents to discuss flooding issues, said.
State law would require Grosse Pointe Park to report any SSO discharges to EGLE, a local newspaper, and the local health department as well as post notices at Patterson Park and just downstream at Windmill Pointe Park. The law may also require it to test the affected waters for E. coli.
But will EGLE hold the city accountable if it discharges sewage into Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River?
That may depend on the type of weather event during which it’s used. Jeff Johnston, a public information officer for EGLE, said the agency would use “enforcement discretion” if an SSO occurred during an event larger than a 25-year, 24-hour storm. EGLE’s policy is based largely on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s probability models which estimate the frequency of storm events.
In this context, “enforcement discretion” means that EGLE may not act, Johnston said. If EGLE finds Grosse Pointe Park used the relief sewer during a smaller storm, it can fine the city up to $25,000 per event or order corrective actions.
A “25-year storm” equates to roughly four inches of rain in a day, a substantial amount of precipitation, but something the region may see multiple times a season with climate change. In 2021, metro Detroit saw at least two storms that surpassed the four-inch mark in some areas.
The major rainfall and flooding event on June 26, 2021, was classified as a “1000-year storm”. This followed a “500-year storm” seven years earlier. NOAA expects to update its system for estimating the frequency of such storms by 2027.
Bill Shuster, chair of the civil and environmental engineering program at Wayne State University and a Grosse Pointe Park resident, opposes the relief sewer. He says that it’s a relatively expensive piece of infrastructure with limited utility and that the city could have instead worked with other municipalities and utilities to develop more comprehensive solutions.
Shuster believes the Grosse Pointe Park also needs to continue to prioritize keeping pipes clean and ensuring the system has adequate capacity. He says that like most sewer systems, it hasn’t been consistently maintained and is aging. For example, sanitary sewers often have cracks from the heaving created by the freeze and thaw cycle. This damage could allow groundwater to infiltrate the lines and reduce the space available for sewage, potentially making use of the EERV more likely.
Grosse Pointe Park is addressing some of these issues, with efforts to inspect sewer infrastructure and disconnect downspouts to divert water away from storm drains.
Shuster suggested the relief valve might be used more frequently because of the “risk aversion” produced by the 2021 storms and the painful cleanups they required.
“There’s a tendency when you build something, people expect you to use it,” he said.
No public input
Jim Ridgway, a retired water resources engineering consultant, said that the failure to permit SSOs was a result of a “glitch in the law” but that these discharges were preferable to sending waste into residents’ basements.
He believes SSOs should be regulated like combined sewer overflows or CSOs: discharges from systems designed to carry both sewage and stormwater, which are allowed under the Clean Water Act. This would at least provide for public comment and an evaluation of impacts to waterways.
The lack of public input for a project with regional consequences concerns ECN’s Stanley.
“It just felt very sneaky,” she said. “It’s not that public comment is always effective, but it’s a baseline of democracy.”.
John Myers, who’s lived on Fox Creek in Jefferson Chalmers since 1994, fears that sewage from Grosse Pointe Park could add to other pressures on the canals, which receive occasional combined sewer overflows from a Great Lakes Water Authority relief chamber on Fox Creek. However, he said he was more concerned about impacts on Great Lakes water quality, Belle Isle Park, and Detroit’s drinking water intakes, one of which is located near Belle Isle.
“Nobody should be allowed to discharge raw sewage into any body of water,” Myers said.
Stanley also worries that sewage from Grosse Pointe Park will enter Jefferson Chalmers’s canals, where she says “it can be pretty stagnant.” And she expressed concern about Belle Isle Beach, one of the few outdoor swimming options in Detroit and the only one on the river. The beach was shut down for 16 days in 2021 and 13 days in 2017 because of unsafe bacteria levels in the water – however, much of that may be due to geese and gull feces. A state toxicologist said it’s unlikely bacteria from sewage overflows could survive the Detroit River’s current in concentrations high enough to cause problems at Belle Isle Beach.
Statewide, beach closures have become more common in recent years, often following heavy rains when sewer systems overflowed into waterways. Hodges, who also serves as president and CEO of the Belle Isle Conservancy, said she was, “confident that the regulatory and oversight processes associated with the project are designed to protect assets like Belle Isle.”
Givens-Davidson said the relief sewer represented a “missed opportunity” for Grosse Pointe Park to work with Detroit to expand system-wide capacity, affecting both communities and the region.
“We are occupying contiguous areas,” she said. “Whether it’s air quality or water, we have connected environmental needs.”
This story has been updated to include comments from Grosse Pointe Park Mayor Michele Hodges on possible impacts to Belle Isle.