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Billions of gallons of sewage enters Michigan waterways (US)
Friday, October 12, 2001

Report: Billions of gallons in sewage enters state waterways

October 12, 2001

The Associated Press


At least 52 billion gallons of raw or partly treated sewage flowed into Michigan waters over 18 months ending in June, two environmental advocacy groups said Tuesday.

The figure was more than double that reported by the state for the same period, according to Clean Water Action and Clean Water Fund, which compiled their numbers from local health departments.

They said the findings underscored the need for the state to improve its reporting methods and for communities to upgrade their wastewater treatment systems.

That's especially true in the southeastern Michigan counties of Oakland, Macomb, Wayne and St. Clair, where 95 percent of the overflows happened, the groups said.

"In addition to endangering the drinking water source for millions of Michigan residents, overflows pose an economic threat to Michigan's ... tourist industry," said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

The two groups submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act to Michigan's 45 county and regional health departments. Of those, 32 provided data about sewage overflows that occurred between January 2000 and June 2001.

The departments reported a combined 1,104 overflows, totaling 52 billion gallons.

Because some departments did not respond, it's likely the actual amount of sewage released was even higher, said Cyndi Roper, Michigan director for both organizations.

"We were astonished that these massive volumes of sewage and toxic chemicals are still being dumped into the state's waterways," Roper said.

The groups accused the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality of failing to keep up-to-date information about overflows on its Web site, as required under a law enacted last year. The law also directed the agency to compile yearly reports on the subject.

Data on the Web site from the same counties over the same 18 months totaled just 23 billion gallons of sewage, Roper said.

DEQ spokesman Ken Silfven said the environmental groups' criticism was unfair because their report goes back to January 2000, while the department wasn't required to begin posting the statistics until seven months later.

"To me, it isn't surprising that there's a discrepancy," Silfven said. "There's nothing sinister going on."

He said the DEQ planned to issue the first annual report in January 2002.

Roper said the DEQ Web site notes some overflows dating back to 1999. "It was hard for us to tell just when they did get started," she said. "The point is that the public has a right to the most accurate information it can get ... and the DEQ needs to provide better leadership."

State officials have quoted vastly different statistics on sewage overflows in recent years, she said. The Legislative Service Bureau in February 2000 put the annual total at 9.2 billion. Sen. Ken Sikkema, R-Grandville, said in August the DEQ had reported 54 billion gallons having been released between June 1, 1999, and Feb. 16, 2001.

Sikkema, chairman of a Senate task force on Great Lakes water quality, said the environmental groups' report illustrates the seriousness of the problem. The Senate this year approved bills to improve monitoring and bolster a fund for loans to communities for sewer upgrades. The bills are pending in the House.

"Aside from the nonnative species invasion, I'd call this the biggest problem facing the lakes," he said.


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