Christina Hall Detroit Free Press
Published 2:27 PM EST Jan 9, 2019
A tsunami of sewage caused by “human error” weakened an underground sewer line, leading to the 2016 collapse that created a massive sinkhole on 15 Mile Road in Fraser and cost $70 million to fix.
That’s what Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller said Wednesday she now believes caused the Christmas Eve day 2016 sinkhole that destroyed a home and created a pit the size of a football field on 15 Mile Road near Eberlein.
She said Gary Brierley, a national expert, was hired last year to examine what caused the sinkhole, which she said is probably the “worst infrastructure disaster in Macomb County history.”
The major sewer line collapse and sinkhole took nine months to fix, inconveniencing residents and businesses in Fraser and financially impacting the half-million people in the 11 communities in the county that rely on the line to carry their waste.
Miller said an insurance claim is being filed on behalf of the Macomb Interceptor Drain Drainage District, which oversees the line. If a settlement can’t be reached to recoup $75 million in costs to fix the sinkhole and other problems in the line, a lawsuit will be filed in Macomb County Circuit Court, she said.
“We know now what happened,” Miller said, adding that the expert has spent months examining data at a cost of about $100,000.
Miller said a large project to reline the sewer— was being done in 2014 on another large line downstream — the Oakland-Macomb Interceptor Drain, which handles waste from communities in both counties.
Gates in the line were closed to hold back sewage so the work could be done, a very common practice, she said.
When workers leave the line, the operator is to raise the gates, following proper protocols. The protocols, Miller said, are for the flow to be gradually released “maybe over several hours.”
At least eight different times — and one time in particular on May 9, 2014, Miller said the flow was released in about seven minutes.
“So when that happened, that release of flow in seven minutes instead of several hours, you had a tsunami of water,” Miller said.
She said the water traveled down the pipe, hit a figurative wall (where the pipe narrowed down several feet) and came back — right at the end of Eberlein — where the first house started sinking in 2016 at the site of the sinkhole.
“This thing hit this wall and was like a bomb went off,” Miller said.
She said part of the line was smaller in diameter, and the impact caused hairline fractures, allowing silt to get into the top of the pipe. It took time for the problem to manifest.
Miller said she’s not suggesting there was any criminal intent, calling the error “a mistake that was made.”
The MIDD bonded $70 million for the sinkhole repair. Miller said the average ratepayer cost in the 11-community drainage district is about $25 per house per year for 25 years.
In January 2017, Miller theorized a hole bored into the sewer line nearly 40 years ago earlier may have been the cause of a 2016 sinkhole, that initially resulted in three houses being condemned and forced 19 other families from their homes in an adjoining subdivision.
There were many theories, and Miller wanted an expert to review the situation, especially after two prior sinkholes on the line, including a 2004 sinkhole on 15 Mile in neighboring Sterling Heights.
Miller said Wednesday that all three sinkhole events appear to be different and unrelated.
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Contact Christina Hall: [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @challreporter.
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