In the days leading up to the 4th of July holiday, construction activity at Sunset Ridge mobile home park resulted in the spillage of 2.5 million gallons of sewage into the Grand River. The Portland Beacon was first to break the story this past week, which has since sparked outrage among area residents. Reaction to the story on the Portland Beacon Facebook page has been overwhelming, and generated additional information from concerned readers. This led us to believe there was far more to this story than simply passing along the contents of a disclosure form provided by the wastewater plant operators.
As previously reported, in the case of sewage discharges, state law requires that the sewer system operators notify the county health department, Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), affected municipal governments, and a local daily newspaper. While Sunset Ridge is located in Portland Township, the point where the wastewater spilled into the Grand River is located in the City of Portland. The story took an unexpected twist when Portland City Manager Tutt Gorman revealed in a July 11th statement on Facebook that,
“The City was not notified and only learned of the discharge yesterday through an article posted on Facebook by the Portland Beacon. Although the legal notification requirements may have been met, the City strongly believes that it should have been given the opportunity to inform its residents, especially considering the discharge was within the City limits and heavy traffic on the river due to the upcoming Fourth of July holiday. Regardless of whether subsequent river samplings were deemed safe by government standards, the residents should have been afforded the opportunity to make an informed decision before entering the river with their families and friends. Trust that the City is making efforts to ensure this issue is swiftly corrected and immediately notified of such instances in the future.”
Mr. Gorman responded to later queries saying that Infrastructure Alternatives subsequently contacted his office. He said that while they took responsibility for the incident, that, “the City will make certain that the responsible parties are held accountable to the fullest extent of the law. Much of this will be DEQ of course, but the City will be a driving force. We are fully exploring the issue and all options.” Officials from the DEQ were contacted for comment on this story but did not respond as of this writing.
In addition, Portland Township Supervisor Christian Jensen said that Infrastructure Alternatives has not contacted his office. Sunset Ridge is located in Portland Township. He elaborated, saying that township officials are, “in contact with the MDEQ to find out what is required for an event like this. We definitely want a commitment [from Infrastructure Alternatives to] not only meet any legal requirements but basic common sense to let us know when there is an event that could compromise the health or safety of our residents.” He declined to comment on whether Infrastructure Alternatives had violated the law by failing to notify municipal governments in a timely fashion. However, he said that he agrees, “with the City of Portland statement that we should have been notified immediately so we could inform our residents before they decided to use the river for any recreational activities.”
Documents received by the Portland Beacon show that all tests of water samples collected from the Grand River by Infrastructure Alternatives came back below the state mandated limit of 300 colony forming units per 100 milliliters of water. Below those levels, state law says the water is deemed safe for full body contact, however that standard does not mean that nobody will be sickened. According to Michigan State University’s Center for Water Sciences, “Michigan water quality criteria...are slightly different from the EPA's criteria but they are still below the EPA's acceptable risk level of 1% (10 people per 1000 getting sick).”
An environmental health officer with the Ionia County Health Department confirmed that e.coli infection is a disease that health care providers must report to the health department, but only if positively confirmed by lab tests. In other words if a patient saw their doctor with symptoms of e.coli infection (stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, low grade fever) but the health care provider didn’t order lab tests to confirm e.coli, the health department would not be notified. As of this writing the health department says that they have not received any reports of illness in connection with the sewage release.
That hasn’t prevented local residents from speculating. One Portland Beacon reader posted on Facebook that their child had bloodshot eyes and diarrhea after playing near the confluence of the Looking Glass River and Grand River last week. Another reader who asked to remain anonymous reached out to the Beacon because he was bass fishing in the Grand River on July 1st. Documents received by the Beacon say that the discharge was not halted until the morning of July 2nd. “Two days after that I got flu like symptoms,” the fisherman reported, “I’m 52 years old and never got the flu in July. I thought it was pretty strange.” He said he was very sick for two days but has since recovered. He said he also found a strange residue on his fishing raft when he got off the river. At the time he didn’t put the two together but in light of the news of the sewage release, he said that he’s, “pretty sure that is what it was.”
Prior to publication of our initial story, we reached out to management at Sunset Ridge for comment with no success. A Beacon reader reported on Facebook that the manager at Sunset Ridge retired at the end of June. We later were able to contact Ed Kape, the interim Community Manager at Sunset Ridge. Kape is manager at another Sun Communities property and says he is spending a few days a week at Sunset Ridge while a new community manager is being hired. He referred our questions to Ken Kuiper, Regional Vice President at Sun Communities, Inc., Sunset Ridge’s parent company. Mr. Kuiper further delegated answering our questions to Josh Schnakenberg, Divisional Vice President for Operations and Sales. Asked about any connection between the Community Manager leaving the job and the sewage spill, Mr. Schnakenberg said that,
“The community staff are not involved in any way with the operation of the sewer system and thus, any changes in staffing would not be relevant to the situation in question. That said, the departure of our Community Manager was a planned retirement of a valuable team member who had been with our company in multiple communities for quite some time.”
He also shared that the new sewage treatment lagoon was being constructed as part of an ongoing expansion at Sunset Ridge. Asked about reports the Beacon received that people may have been sickened, he responded that, “we are not aware of any reports of symptoms in connection with the discharge.”
We also contacted Mr. Nick Harris, Project Manager at Infrastructure Alternative, who is responsible for Sunset Ridge’s wastewater operations for further information and comment on the concerns raised since this story first broke. Although it was Mr. Harris who initially contacted the Beacon to report the sewage release, he responded that he is, “not authorized to speak on behalf of the company or community,” and that our inquiry was being forwarded to the appropriate personnel for comment. Infrastructure Alternatives has not responded to our queries for further information or comment as of this writing.
There are still many questions unanswered. What was the nature of the miscommunication/ oversite that led to the sewage discharge? Why was it reported to the Beacon rather than a “local daily newspaper,” and why were the City of Portland and Portland Township officials not informed both as mentioned specifically in MDEQ regulations? What sort of legal steps will the City, Township and MDEQ be taking in response?
These and more are questions we will continue to seek answers to as the story continues to unfold.