Tag Archives: floods

Follow the feces; how to stop the poisoning

In Oakland county, we regularly poison our basements and our lake St Clair beaches with feces — and potentially our water supply too. We have a combined storm and sanitary sewer system that mixes feces-laden sanitary sewage with rainwater, and our pipes are too old and small to handle the amount of storm water from our larger rains. A group called “Save Lake St. Clair” is up in arms but the current commissioner claims the fault is not his. It’s global warming, he says, and the rains are bigger now. Maybe, or maybe the fault is wealth: more and more of the county is covered by asphalt, so less rain water can soak in the ground. Whatever the cause, the Commissioner should deal with it (I’m running for water commissioner, BTW). As the chart of toxic outfalls shows, we’ve had regular toxic sewage discharges into the Red Run basically every other week, with no exceptional rainfalls: only 0.9″ to 1.42″.

Toxic outfalls into lake St Clair, Feb 20 to Mar 20, 2016. There were also two outfalls into the Rouge in this period. These are too many to claim they are once in hundred-year events.

Toxic outfalls into lake St Clair, Feb 20 to Mar 20, 2016. There were also two outfalls into the Rouge in this period. These are too many to claim they are once in hundred-year events.

Because we have a combined system, the liquid level rises in our sewers whenever it rains. When the level is above the level of a basement floor drain, mixed sewage comes up into the basement. A mix of storm water comes up mixed with poop and anything else you and your neighbors flush down. Mixed sewage can come up even if the sewers were separate, but far less often. Currently most of the dry outfall from our old, combined sewers is sent to Detroit’s Waste Water Treatment plant near Zug Island. When there is a heavy rain, the pipe to Zug is overwhelmed. We avoid flooding your basement every other week by diverting as much as we can of the mixed storm water and septic sewage to lake St. Clair. This is poop, barely treated, and the fishermen and environmentalists hate it.

The beaches along Lake St Clair are closed every other week: whenever the pipes to Detroit start getting overwhelmed, whenever there is about 1″ or rain. Worse yet, the sewage is enters the lake just upstream of the water intake on Belle Isle, see map below. Overflow sewage follows the red lines entering the Clinton River through the GW Kuhn — Red Run Drain or through the North Branch off the River. From there it flows out into Lake St. Clair near Selfridge ANG, generally hugging the Michigan shore of the lake, following the light blue line to poison the metro beaches. it enters the water intake for the majority of Oakland County at the Belle Island water intakes, lower left.

Follow the feces to see why our beeches are polluted. It's just plain incompetence.

The storm water plus septic sewage mix is not dumped raw into lake St. Clair, but it’s nearly raw. The only treatment is to be spritzed with bleach in the Red Run Drain. The result is mats of black gunk with floating turds, toilet paper and tampons. This water is filtered before we drink it, and it’s sprayed with more chlorine, but that’s not OK. We can do much better than this. We don’t have to regularly dump poop into the river just upstream of our water intake. I favor a two-prong solution.

The first, quick solution is to have better pumps to send the sewage to Detroit. This is surprisingly expensive since we still have to treat the rain water. Also it doesn’t take care of the biggest rains; there is a limit to what our pipes will handle, but it stops some basement flooding, and it avoids some poisoning of our beaches and drinking water.

This is our combined sewer system showing a tunnel cistern (yuk) and the outflow into the Red Run. We can do better

A combined sewer system showing a tunnel cistern. Outflow goes into the Red Run. We can do better.

A second, longer term solution is to disentangle the septic from the storm sewers. My approach would be to do this in small steps, beginning by diverting some storm runoff into small wetlands or French drain retention. Separating the sewers this way is cheaper and more environmentally sound than trying to treat the mixed flow in Detroit, and the wetlands and drains would provide pleasant park spaces, but the project will take decades to complete. If done right, this would save quite a lot over sending so much liquid to Detroit, and it’s the real solution to worries about your floor drains back-flowing toxic sludge into your basement.

The incumbent, I fear, has little clue about drainage or bio-treatment. His solution is to build a $40MM tunnel cistern along Middlebelt road. This cistern only holds 3 MM gallons, less than 1/100 of the volume needed for even a moderate rain. Besides, at $13/gallon of storage, it is very costly solution compared to my preference — a French drain (costs about 25¢/gallon of storage). The incumbents cistern has closed off traffic for months between 12 and 13 mile, and is expected to continue for a year, until January, 2017. It doesn’t provide any bio-cleaning, unlike a French drain, and the cistern leaks. Currently groundwater is leaking in. This has caused the lowering of the water table and the closure of private wells. If the leak isn’t fixed , the cistern will leak septic sewage into the groundwater, potentially infecting people for miles around with typhus, cholera, and all sorts of 3rd world plagues.

There is also an explosion hazard to the incumbent’s approach. A tunnel cistern like this blew up near my undergraduate college sending manhole covers flying. This version has much bigger manhole covers: 15′ cement, not 2′ steel. If someone pours gasoline down the drain during a rainstorm and if a match went in later, the result could be deadly. The people building these projects are the same ones who fund the incumbent’s campaign, and I suspect they influenced him for this mis-chosen approach. They are the folks I fear he goes to for engineering advice. If you’d like to see a change for the better. Elect me, Elect an engineer.

Dr. Robert E. Buxbaum, March 26, 2016. Go here to volunteer or contribute.