Hills council, residents blast county official over Middlebelt project

Farmington Hills city council members and residents on Monday blasted Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner (WRC) Jim Nash over continuing water quality problems, construction delays, and traffic detours around the Middlebelt Sewer Interceptor project.

Speaking during a 7:30 p.m. city council meeting, Nash, a Farmington Hills resident, said he took full responsibility for the project changes and water quality problems created by dewatering in the area along the major thoroughfare, between 13 Mile and I-696. Some residents have for months been getting their water from tanks; one homeowner was forced to live in a hotel. Nash pledged that his office would make sure homeowners’ issues were all addressed.

“I completely understand if you’re mad at me. If I were you, I’d be mad at me too,” he said, also offering an apology. “I know you’ve been in pain…some of you more than others. We will make you whole. We’re here to help in any way we can.”

But his comments did little to mollify residents in the area of Greencastle subdivision, who said they’re not only concerned with current conditions, but worry also about how the project will affect future water quality. Melanie Williams said the WRC’s efforts to drill new wells has only been a “Bandaid”.

At this point, the best long-term solution would be to extend the partial city main to include the entire subdivision,” she said. “I am frustrated that this has already been going on for over a year, with no end in sight…I want to know what is going to be done to ensure our water is safe and clean now and for years to come.”

The nine-foot tunnel, which falls from a depth of 15-20 feet to 80 feet below the road, was designed in the wake of a 2004 consent decree, filed after the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) identified sanitary sewer flowing into the stormwater system during major storms. The new system will funnel stormwater through two “diversion chambers” and into the storage tunnel.

The project took a turn last year, when residents on wells began experiencing odor and quality problems. Dewatering of sandy soils lowered the water table in an area north of I-696. The WRC dug new wells for some residents and hooked others to municipal water. An alternative plan approved by the DEQ shortened the tunnel by about 20 percent and created new downstream projects to make up the difference in storage space.

Nash and his staff late last year and in February assured council members that issues were being addressed. On Monday, Nash said his office responds to calls within 12 to 24 hours, but city officials said they are still hearing from residents who are without a permanent water supply.

“We have emails and letters from people saying they don’t return our calls, they don’t get back to us,” council member Richard Lerner said. “We tend to believe the people who live in these houses.”

While the WRC is negotiating with its insurance carrier and the professional services providers involved in the project, city officials urged Nash to take swift action.

“It’s a debacle, that’s what this is,” Mayor Ken Massey said. “These residents are here tonight because they don’t have water. It’s a basic, human need.”

Council member Valerie Knol asked the WRC to make sure that all residents in the subdivision had their water tested, and Lerner requested that Nash and his staff meet with every resident in attendance, to address their concerns. Massey asked Nash to bring back a plan within two weeks that includes “hard dates” for taking care of residents’ issues.

“I think these people deserve it. The city deserves it. We need to be done with this,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than not trusting the water. We’ve had too many water issues in this state, and Farmington Hills is not going to become another one.”