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Macomb looking at "incredibly expensive fix," as "theory" emerges about sinkhole cause

A massive sinkhole in central Macomb County is “an incredibly large challenge” with a “potentially incredibly expensive fix,” Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller said Wednesday.

Miller says she spoke with Gov. Snyder about possible financial help, and that Snyder had assembled “a team” to examine “every potential avenue” to help the county fund repairs.

“Quite frankly, we’re looking for help. The amount of money that this could potentially cost could go into the tens of millions of dollars,” Miller said.

Miller says she discussed a potential emergency declaration with Snyder, and that such an announcement could be coming soon, though she emphasized no decision had been made. That could open up new potential pots of state and federal money.

But Miller says that even with substantial aid the county will likely have to issue bonds, and raise sewer rates in the eleven communities that make up the Macomb Interceptor Drain Drainage District, to pay for the collapsed sewer interceptor and resulting sinkhole.

The sinkhole that opened up on Christmas Eve has left three homes in Fraser condemned. Another 19 families were displaced, but are expected to return home by next week.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel says teams from the county will reach out to those families, and try to reimburse them for any expenses they’ve had to assume as a result.

“So we’re going to do that, without having to have a lot of involvement of the courts and attorneys, and everything else, which also adds to the burden of costs to taxpayers and rate payers,” Hackel said.

Hackel admits it will be harder to reach settlements with those who lost their homes to the sinkhole, saying the county may have to buy them outright and that could be “a complicated process.” But the county would still like to try and settle the matter without waiting for them to file a lawsuit, he said.

Although investigators will have to wait about a month for a sewage bypass to be built before they can do a real inspection and find the cause of the sinkhole, Miller did offer one theory on Wednesday.

This stretch of pipes has a history of problems going back decades. In 1978, contractors investigating an issue bored 11 holes into the sewer pipe to find out the extent of it.

Presumably those holes were patched up at the time; most of them were made along a section of the pipe that’s no longer in use, Miller said. But when you look at the two outermost borings, one is the site of a costly 2004 sinkhole; the other is at the site of the one that opened up on Christmas Eve.

“So this is only a theory. But we may have discovered what actually happened here,” Miller said. “I just thought it was so extremely coincidental.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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