A few days before the 4th of July holiday, an accident at Sunset Ridge mobile home park led to the spillage of 2.5 million gallons of sewage into the Grand River. The Portland Beacon was first to break the story, of the spill, which sparked outrage and further questions among area residents.
At the time of the spill, we reached out to Infrastructure Alternatives, Inc., the company that operates the wastewater treatment plant at Sunset Ridge, for comment. They punted our questions from one person to the next for several weeks before eventually referring us back to Sun Communities, Inc., the company that owns Sunset Ridge. The process repeated with our queries being passed up and down the corporate ladder. Eventually we received the following statement from Mr. Josh Schnakenberg, the divisional vice president for operations & sales at Sun Communities, Inc:
“Sunset Ridge has contracted with Infrastructure Alternatives [Inc.] (IAI) to operate the well water and wastewater systems at the community. Infrastructure Alternatives is a leader in their industry and has a long track record of working with property owners, operators, municipalities, MDEQ and others in the operation of infrastructure systems. The Sunset Ridge wastewater system is comprised of lift stations and a lagoon. IAI has a team of individuals dedicated to the operation of the systems under their care and work closely with the Michigan DEQ to adhere to oversight procedures and requirements. The incident...was in connection with the construction of a new lagoon as part of the Sunset Ridge expansion. As has been reported, IAI followed the MDEQ procedures upon learning of the discharge. As also previously reported, the health department was contacted and the Grand River e.coli test results came back within the MDEQ’s accepted standards.”
This statement answered only some of our questions and only in part. Requests to tour the facility were ignored. Questions on the level of experience and workload of the operator in charge of the plant were unanswered. Likewise Sun Communities had no comment on whether IAI had followed regulations as far as notifying local governments and local news outlets. As previously reported, City of Portland and Portland Township officials first learned of the sewage spill from coverage in the Beacon. Finally, when asked whether they had any thing to say to those who may have fallen sick due to contact with the contaminated water, they had no comment.
Ms. Chris Bower from Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) water resources division answered our questions in a phone interview. Specifically, she was able to clear up some questions as far as the timeline of events. As it turns out, MDEQ learned of the sewage spill on July 2nd from a concerned passerby who called their office, not from the mobile home park staff. The MDEQ immediately contacted the wastewater plant operator at Sunset Ridge who stopped the discharge. Documentation of the spill sent to the Beacon did not mention that IAI first learned of the spill from the MDEQ. Ms. Bower was also able to clear up questions about notification of municipal governments and the media. Under state law, sewage system operators must annually contact municipal governments to ask them to opt in to being notified of incidents like a sewage spill. Bower said that the operator is now aware of this requirement.
One question raised initially raised by one of the Beacon’s readers, was why did IAI contact the Portland Beacon, rather than a “local daily newspaper” as the regulation states. While we were happy to be able to bring this important news to our neighbors, the Beacon is currently a part time operation for everyone involved. Some readers wondered if the information would have gotten out more quickly had IAI notified another media outlet. Bower said that it is “increasingly difficulty” to find daily newspapers. She said that according to documentation filed with the MDEQ, the wastewater plant operator did notify the Lansing State Journal (LSJ) in addition to the Portland Beacon. A search of the LSJ website however, reveals no coverage of this event. Bower also said that while the law requires notification of the media, that the newspaper is not required to publish the story.
As of this writing, the MDEQ has sent Sunset Ridge a violation notice, which the park owners have responded to. “Ultimately, a scenario like this could result in fines,” said Bower, “but not at this point.”
PHOTO: Jordan D. Smith