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At four-year sinkhole anniversary, Macomb County starts project to prevent another disaster

Fraser home falling into the sinkhole.
Bryce Huffman
Michigan Radio

It was Christmas Eve 2016, and Candice Miller was just days away from taking office after winning the race for Macomb County's public works commissioner, when a section of the interceptor sewer pipe collapsed on 15 Mile Road – causing a  sinkhole the size of a football field.

The interceptor is a massive sewer line that that carries the waste flushed by more than 500,000 people from nearly a dozen communities in Macomb County to Detroit's wastewater treatment plant.

First responders and construction crews rushed to the scene, evacuating people from three homes, two of which had to later be demolished. Engineers quickly jury-rigged a sewer line bypass to ensure that sewage did not flow into the Clinton River, or back up into the basements of countless homes in the county.

"It was just an enormous mess," says Miller. For her, "it was baptism by fire, that's for sure.  The danger that we had with that sinkhole and then the bypass, was because it was jury-rigged at first, we were very, very concerned that we would have to dump raw sewage into the Clinton River. That would have been an environmental catastrophe."

Then, shortly before the Super Bowl, engineers told Miller the bypass would not be able to withstand the inevitable: tens of thousands of people rushing to the bathroom at the same time during the commercials.

She had to tell people to stagger their visits to the loo.

"It was the craziest thing," she laughs. "I thought, I can't believe this is what I'm doing at this stage of my life. But that's what I was telling people and you know what? It worked. It really worked, people were very careful."

Now, the county is beginning construction of a new, two-year project to prevent another, similar disaster.
The last section of unreinforced concrete pipe on 15 Mile will be replaced with glass fiber reinforced polymer pipe, and another section of pipe will be spray-lined with a geopolymer coating. The pipe will be laid in a 65-foot deep shaft.
Miller says the $28-million project will not result in higher sewer rates to residents, in part because funds have been set aside in advance, and in part because of a recent lawsuit settlement.

The $12.5-million lawsuit settlement was paid in November to Macomb County, after the Macomb Interceptor Drain Drainage District board sued three contractors. The lawsuit alleged the contractors' mistakes while working in the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor sewer to the west caused conditions that eventually led to the 2016 sinkhole.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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