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Environmental

Sludge buster

The fight to clean Lake St. Clair sends a message to all Michigan.

Marz: "I knew they weren't telling the whole story."
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Published 3/3/1999

Even though he lives on a canal a block from Lake St. Clair in southeast Michigan’s Macomb County, Doug Martz readily admits he once didn’t much care about what it takes to keep waterways clean.

"I’m a builder," he said. "I would cut down every tree on a lot. I would bury and burn trash. If I changed motor oil I’d dump it on the gravel to keep the dust down. I’d put pesticides and fertilizers on the lawn, right up to the edge of the canal. If some went in the water, I never thought a thing about it."

On June 13, 1994, Martz got an instant education. A heavy rain inundated sewage treatment plants in Macomb and Oakland counties. More than 1 billion gallons of raw sewage overflowed into the Clinton River, which drains into Lake St. Clair. Martz was out building a dock for a friend who lived on the river, a few miles from his house, when the stinking flood arrived.

"The river turned from blue-green, to coffee, to gray, to black. It was a glob 8 feet thick full of tampons and condoms," he recalled. "I didn’t worry about what happened to my toilet water until it ended up in my own back yard.

"It was like I was branded at that point," added Martz, who is 49. "My eyes watered and the stench was so strong it took my breath away."

The consequences of the overflow, which left mats of weeds reeking of sewage on Lake St. Clair’s shoreline and closed its beaches, are still being felt in Macomb County more than four years later. Last summer, new overflows resulted in the shutting of public beaches on Lake St. Clair for 22 days due to fecal contamination. The lake’s marina operators, who manage a total of 10,000 slips, are losing tens of millions of dollars each summer as boat owners cruise other lakes.

Several residents say they’ve been sickened by the contamination. Property values along the lake and the canals have slipped, say real estate agents. Restaurants, hotels, bait shops and suppliers say their business has been cut in half during the peak summer season.

"Every summer it’s the same," said Frank Bartolomeo, who owns the Boat Town Cafe near the entrance to Metro Beach, the largest public beach in southeast Michigan. "As soon as the first beach closing is announced, our business drops 40 percent to 50 percent. You can’t blame the people. Who wants to swim in filth?"

Wake-up call

Lake St. Clair’s polluted shoreline is a warning to the rest of Michigan. A 31-member commission appointed by Macomb County officials concluded in 1997 that rampaging sprawl was the primary cause of the sewage overflow and other lake contamination in southeast Michigan. So many naturally absorbent wetlands and fields (see "Mucked-up wetlands") are now covered with parking lots, roads, shopping centers and subdivisions that even modest rains cause a torrent of runoff – also known as "non-point pollution." Undersized treatment plants are inundated, illegally spilling billions of gallons of raw sewage into streams that run into Lake St. Clair.

Until recently, state officials have not prosecuted the violations. In effect, Lake St. Clair’s continuing bacterial contamination represents the most graphic example of the enormous costs to Michigan’s families, economy and environment from a systemic failure to enforce environmental laws and to plan for growth.

"What we’ve learned here the last four years is that, basically, communities have two choices," said Martz, who was a member of the study commission and now is chairman of the Macomb County Water Quality Board, a nine-member panel of citizens and local government officials charged with overseeing the cleanup of Lake St. Clair. "They can take the steps that are needed to solve the problem, or they can let non-point pollution turn their rivers and lakes into toilet bowls."

Messing with a blessing

Few states are more blessed with fresh water, and are more vulnerable to contamination, than Michigan. The state has 51,438 miles of rivers and streams, 1,390 square miles of inland lakes, 6.2 million acres of wetlands, and 3,250 miles of Great Lakes shoreline. Nearly three decades ago, the state and federal governments approved two general categories of laws to improve the dirty rivers and lakes, and prevent damage to the clean ones:

- Clean water statutes were designed to control chemicals, sewage, and other pollutants that came from factories, treatment plants and businesses.

- Land use laws were written to safeguard wetlands, protect vegetation along natural rivers, and control erosion from construction sites and farms. The idea was to maintain nature’s ability to absorb and purify rainwater. In doing so, communities would avoid regulations and expensive man-made treatment systems.

State and federal authorities generally agree that clean-water statutes have performed fairly well in Michigan in reducing chemical pollution from business and industry. They have not done as well in reducing non-point pollution from runoff, especially in the 1990s. As people moved to suburbs and land was urbanized at a rate seven times faster than population growth, undersized treatment plants have been overwhelmed, spilling billions of gallons of raw human wastes a year into streams, rivers and lakes in dozens of Michigan communities.

The Department of Environmental Quality has been slow to act on the problem. State and federal authorities say that Michigan’s land use statutes are in desperate need of strengthening and enforcement.

"The common perception is that we’ve dealt with chemicals that come out of pipes and things got better," said Jim Nicholas, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey Water Resources Division in Lansing. "But it only got a certain amount better. The next major step in improving water quality is when non-point source pollution gets dealt with. It’s the most significant uncontrolled source of pollution in Michigan."

Michigan’s
mounting problem

Evidence of the need for the state and local communities to seriously tackle non-point pollution is mounting across Michigan:

- The DEQ estimates that 26 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater flow into the Detroit River every year.

- One-third of the state’s large public lakes are being ruined by excessive nutrients carried by runoff and other non-point pollution sources, according to the DEQ’s latest assessment.

- During the past five years, the state’s 20,575 miles of streams and rivers were surveyed by the DEQ, which found that almost 10 percent were too polluted to support fishing or swimming.

- The state’s once-exemplary water monitoring program has collapsed. When Macomb County officials quickly needed accurate data in 1994 to help them understand the extent of the fecal contamination from the sewage overflow into the Clinton River and Lake St. Clair, not a single state monitoring station was in place.

- Last spring and summer the construction of two new golf courses, one along the Cedar River in Antrim County and one on a high bluff over Lake Michigan in Manistee County, produced devastating washouts. Seasonal rainstorms churned across land freshly cleared of runoff-absorbing trees and vegetation and into the water, scouring huge gullies from the shorelines and ruining fish-spawning beds with murky silt.

- In coastal Berrien County on lower Michigan’s west side, heavy pesticide use on fruit crops growing in erosion-prone soil is producing widespread contamination in streams and along the shoreline of Lake Michigan, according to the Great Lakes Commission.

The increasing volume and speed of water washing off the land compounds the problem, said Nicholas. Since 1978, according to a study by the Michigan Society of Planning Officials, the amount of land in Michigan devoted to parking lots, roads, new buildings and other urban uses increased 25 percent. Rainwater hits all these hard surfaces and moves down hills with increasing energy, picking up soil, road contaminants, turf chemicals, animal wastes and other pollutants. The runoff eventually empties into storm drains, then streams and ultimately into rivers and lakes.

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 46.6 million tons of soil erodes in Michigan each year. The largest source of erosion is farmland, at 36.6 million tons a year. Stream banks, gullies, roads, and construction sites contribute more than 4 million tons annually. Federal scientists add that as Michigan sprawls outward, covering the natural landscape with asphalt, the volume of runoff and the amount of sediments and chemicals flowing into water is growing.

Birth of a sludge buster

What happens when weeds full of human waste wash up on the shoreline of a lake that 1 million people use each summer for swimming and boating? Doug Martz discovered that the answer began with himself.

In the summer of 1994 he joined hundreds of Macomb County residents at an emergency meeting and listened warily as state environmental officials blamed the fecal contamination along Lake St. Clair on waste from ducks and geese, and grass clippings.

"I stood up at that meeting and said, ‘What about the raw sewage that came down the Clinton River a couple of weeks ago,’" Martz said, recalling his awakening as an activist. "It wasn’t something I planned to do. I just did it because I knew they weren’t telling the whole story."

While his wife, Patty, earned the bulk of their income, he abandoned his building trade and devoted most of his time to prodding the county and state into acting. Calling himself a "sludge buster," he arrived at public meetings and rallies in an old Cadillac limousine fitted with a toilet and loudspeakers on the roof, wearing a rain suit and gas mask, and waving a plunger. Working with his neighbors, he gathered reams of information from state files, including data that showed treatment plants were pouring a flood of raw sewage into state waters while the DEQ chose to do nothing about it. The reason: DEQ officials did not want to force communities to spend millions of dollars to modernize treatment plants.

By the winter of 1995 Martz had become the most prominent citizen activist in Macomb County and had attracted powerful allies in the county government. They included John Hertel, chairman of the county commission, who appointed Martz to a special task force, and prosecutor Carl Marlinga, who filed a lawsuit to require the state to enforce the law.

"Doug Martz is a gutsy guy with moral courage," said Marlinga. "The work he did to bring everybody’s attention to the problem – dressing up and driving that car – was done at great risk to his own reputation."

Like Martz, prosecutor Marlinga also had a hard time believing the state’s explanation that grass clippings were causing the lake’s contamination problems. He dispatched a team to investigate.

Lax enforcement

The answer finally came in a pile of documents Marlinga obtained from the state’s Department of Natural Resources. They showed massive and consistent sewage overflows from retention basins and treatment plants into the Clinton River, which drains into Lake St. Clair. Marlinga also discovered that the state permit for operating the largest plant, a two-mile long underground sewage storage basin in Oakland County, had expired in 1978 and had never been renewed. It was a clear violation of clean water laws.

When the DNR stepped in to issue the plant a new permit in 1994, Marlinga filed an administrative challenge. He argued that the new permit allowed the plant to do the same thing it had always done: dump millions of gallons of raw sewage into the river every time there was a hard rain.

Marlinga’s challenge was the first ever made by a county government in Michigan to prevent sewage overflows. It resulted in negotiations between the Department of Environmental Quality, 14 Oakland County cities that co-owned the plant, and Macomb County. Last fall, the cities agreed to spend $130 million to enlarge the retention basin and take other steps to prevent sewage from polluting the Clinton River. The agreement also caused the DEQ to begin enforcing the law along the Lake St. Clair shoreline and requiring other cities to begin modernizing treatment plants to eliminate raw sewage pollution.

Changes coming

Macomb County now is moving forward with the most aggressive program in Michigan to solve a critical water quality problem. Their goals serve as a model for other Michigan communities to endorse before they find themselves in a similar predicament:

- Press local governments and the DEQ to enlarge and modernize sewage treatment plants. In the Detroit region, this will come to a cost of nearly $2 billion.

- Strengthen local and state zoning to encourage more compact communities, reduce the size of parking lots, provide for open swaths of green space, and establish natural buffers along streams to slow and cleanse runoff.

- Promote a farmland preservation law to protect crop and pasture land, and to gain more effective measures to control erosion.

- Compel the state Legislature to strengthen environmental laws that protect wetlands and rivers and prevent erosion.

- Pressure the DEQ to vastly improve its willingness to enforce environmental laws.

With leadership provided by County Commissioner John Hertel, the county has also established a new team in the Health Department to investigate incidences of pollution, find and fix faulty septic systems, and locate other sources of contamination. The county named a special environmental prosecutor, the first in the state, to assist the Health Department in bringing cases against violators. And Hertel established a nine-member Water Quality Board, made up of citizens and elected officials, to oversee the cleanup and serve as watchdogs. Doug Martz is one of those citizen members.

"When this thing started, we had a lot of help from neighbors and people who lived in the community," Martz said. "But most of them saw how bad it was and how much work it would take and they either quit or moved away.

There’s probably been 100 times that I wanted to give up too. But something keeps the fire going inside. It just feels like cleaning up this lake is something I’m supposed to do."

Mucked-up wetlands

Macomb county prosecutor sues Engler appointee.

In a precedent-setting local challenge to the state Department of Environmental Quality, Macomb County filed a lawsuit last November charging the agency’s former deputy director with illegally issuing a permit to fill a wetland.

The lawsuit, brought by special environmental prosecutor Mark A. Richardson, is the first ever brought by a county in response to the Engler administration’s lax oversight of wetlands and overall pro-development approach to managing natural resources. The suit names as the lead defendant W. Charles McIntosh, the governor’s former environmental advisor who recently resigned as DEQ deputy director to take a position at Ford Motor Company.

The Macomb lawsuit came six weeks after Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a national public interest organization, issued a devastating investigative report by whistle-blowing DEQ staff members that documents political interference in the enforcement of Michigan’s wetland protection program.

The report and the lawsuit have prompted a flurry of responses from the DEQ. Ken Silfven, the agency’s chief spokesman, said the report was the work of "disgruntled" employees. McIntosh, meanwhile, called Richardson "incompetent," and said in an interview in the Macomb Daily that the lawsuit was a case of "malpractice." Twelve days after the interview was published McIntosh resigned from the DEQ, a move that Silfven said had been planned for some time and had nothing to do with the lawsuit.

Disappearing wetlands

Since the late 1700s more than 5.6 million acres of wetlands have disappeared in Michigan. Fifty percent of the state’s inland wetlands and 70 percent of the coastal wetlands are gone. This massive change to the natural landscape has caused severe economic and environmental harm by increasing flooding and water pollution, and by diminishing wildlife.

To stem the damage, the Legislature approved a wetland protection law in 1979 that still is among the nation’s best. Developers and industrialists, however, have lobbied against the law and have found support in the Engler administration, which regards such laws as encroachments on private property rights.

In a particularly telling example of this ideological bias, Russell Harding, the DEQ director, issued a permit to a peat-mining company in 1997 to drain nearly 2,000 acres of Sanilac County’s Minden Bog, the Lower Peninsula’s largest wetland. Harding said he feared that otherwise the company would be successful in a lawsuit accusing the state of "taking" its property without just compensation. The Michigan Supreme Court, however, has rejected such arguments in similar cases.

Blowing whistles

The 28-page PEER report, "See No Evil," provides graphic evidence of how deep the ideological attack on the wetlands law has reached into the DEQ.

The report found:

- Senior DEQ officials in Lansing regularly overrule staff recommendations to protect wetlands, and direct that permits be issued to developers in violation of the law.

- Eighty percent of citizen complaints of wetland violations are closed without investigation.

- DEQ employees intent on enforcing the wetland law are intimidated into silence with threats of demotion or firing.

State lawmakers regularly intervene at the DEQ to acquire permits for their campaign contributors to fill or drain wetlands.

Macomb fights in court

Macomb County, which has lost 74 percent of its wetlands and is suffering pollution from sewage overflow in its lakes, is especially intent on preserving what’s left, said county prosecutor Carl J. Marlinga.

Macomb’s lawsuit focuses on an eight-acre wetland that was part of a horse farm in Chesterfield Township sold in 1996 to CPD Properties, which is building a subdivision called Sugarbush. According to field reports DEQ biologists visited the site in March 1997, when 18 inches of water covered the ground and aquatic plants and animals thrived. Staff members in the DEQ’s Livonia field office denied the developer’s application to fill the wetland.

But that summer CPD Properties filled it anyway. In September McIntosh visited the site, and three weeks later issued CPD an after-the-fact permit. McIntosh said he based his decision on a recently enacted new provision of the wetland law that says agricultural land that was "effectively drained" as part of an "ongoing farming operation" was exempt from wetland regulations.

In response, Richardson said the eight-acre wetland had never been drained, and the horse farm had ceased years ago to be an ongoing farming operation. In other words, said Richardson, McIntosh reached for an excuse to issue the permit, and as a result violated the law.

The question, said Richardson, is why? The answer is almost certain to come from internal DEQ files he has requested, and from depositions he will conduct in preparation for trial. "It is extraordinarily unusual for the number two person in DEQ to become personally involved in a permitting matter," said Richardson. "The circumstances certainly indicate to me that in this case political influence was exercised."

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