CSO completion saga nearing an end

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN – After many years of legal wrangling and delays, the Dearborn Combined Sewer Overflow project is nearing its completion.

The project, comprised of five caissons located in different areas of the city that filter treated wastewater into the Rouge River, traces its roots back to the passing of the Clean Water Act of 1972, which required cities to place stronger regulations on water discharged from sewers.

Dearborn Department of Public Works Director James Murray said the project is scheduled to be completed in 2012.

He said passage of the act caused a fundamental shift in water control. Prior to the federal regulations, there was no way to tell where contaminated water was coming from.

“When you have 50,000 people discharging (wastewater) into the river, it became a nightmare for compliance,” Murray said. “The government said before you discharge anything, you have to make sure there is nothing bad going into the water.”

He said the first changes were made to the point-source discharge locations, where wastewater flows into the river. He said that by 1985, all point sources were cleaned up, but nothing was being done about the combined sewers.

“(The government) adopted rules that said you have to separate your sewers and eliminate the discharge,” he said, “or you can provide a treatment for the overflows.”

The government offered grants, which would have paid for 95 percent of the project, to communities that needed to clean surrounding water. Eventually, he said, the grant became a loan, which, when coupled with changes that were continually being made to the loan requirements, resulted in communities opted to pay for the construction themselves.

“At first, (the government) would pay for the water main projects,” Murray said. “Then they said you can’t build it until you tear up the road. It’s been a lot more complicated than they originally thought, and (the original) 20 years turned into 40 and beyond.”

City officials decided that the better option was to treat the excess waste water, which led to plans for an all-encompassing sewer system, that would have sent water from the sewers to a treatment facility in Detroit.

Murray said the decision to install the sewer was made in 1992 after officials weighed an option to construct demonstration programs that would showcase ways to treat the water.

The planned sewer, which would have been located from the Department of Public Works yard, 2951 Greenfield, through the Telegraph corridor, would capture and treat all the water from the sewer and send it to the treatment plant.

The sewer project did not happen because legal problems forced its cancellation.

“A number of different lawsuits came up,” Murray said. “The contractor claimed there were different site conditions and the engineer had not properly designed the structure, and the engineer was claiming the opposite.”

A different solution was needed after it was determined the sewer system was not a feasible option. Murray said city officials worked with the state, acting on behalf of the federal government, to come up with a plan to create 12 caissons that would capture and treat the sewage.

Murray said not building the sewer was a more plausible option, and saved the city about $300,000 in operating costs. He added that in addition to saving money, the wastewater would still have to be treated, resulting in the same total cost as building the CSO.

“We’ll have new water and sewer lines when we’re done,” he said, “and the clean water will be separated from the sewer water without having to go to Detroit.”

Murray said plans were drawn up to construct four caissons immediately, but their size proved to be more difficult to construct than orignally planned. He said in 2007, lawsuits were pending on at least four.

“The construction on one would have been delayed four years,” Murray said, “One was cracked from top to bottom, one was on a five or six percent tilt and another had some serious groundwater issues that halted the construction,” Murray said. “All (contractors) filed suit saying there was a fault in the design.”

Murray said the total cost of the project was about $300 million.

The decision about how to pay for the project came after a three-mill tax increase passed in 2004. Murray said it was the best decision for the residents because property taxes under federal law are deductible items.

“They know they would have to pay for it,” Murray said, “and they saw this as a way to get some tax breaks on it.”

He said the rest of the combined sewers will be separated, with a projected finish in five-year increments by 2030.

“In 2008, the mayor instructed me to work with the (Department of Environmental Equality) about continuing the project,” Murray said. “We worked with the state, saying we would finish the five that were salvageable.”

Work on the separation will begin in 2012 in the area of Telegraph Road and Cherry Hill.”

(Daniel Heraty can be reached at dheraty@bewickpublications.com.)