Sewage still Great Lakes problem
Leaks bedevil crucial link in environmental chain
By John Flesher
Associated Press Writer
Published in the South Bend Tribune on December 26, 2006
Third of four parts
SUGAR ISLAND, Mich. -- DeJay and Sherri Bumstead enjoy relaxing on the deck of their cottage and gazing across the broad St. Marys River -- until sewage floats toward them like alien blobs in a science fiction movie.
"It's been miserable this year," DeJay Bumstead says with a sigh, describing how dark, smelly plumes repeatedly snaked across the water last summer and deposited mounds of stomach-turning gunk on their beach.
The Bumsteads and their neighbors have long complained about sewage fouling the shoreline of Sugar Island near the northern end of the St. Marys, prompting officials to close beaches and issue advisories not to touch the water.
After years of simmering discontent, something of a political border war broke out last summer over responsibility for the mess.
The 60-mile-long river connects Lakes Superior and Huron and forms part of the U.S.-Canadian boundary at the eastern edge of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Because of sewage releases and industrial pollution, it's one of 43 "areas of concern" designated for intense cleanup efforts under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.
Improved sewage treatment was among goals for the entire region in the original version of the agreement between the two countries in 1972. Despite some progress over the years, Sugar Island's misery shows how far they have to go.
"I have a boat for salmon fishing. I didn't even put it in the water this year," retiree and seasonal resident Wayne Welch says.
Adds his wife, Charlene: "You can't go fishing because you can't handle the fish. And who wants to eat it?"
Many residents of the island, which is part of Michigan, and government officials on the U.S. side believe the sewage comes from the East End Sewage Treatment Plant in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. (A smaller Michigan city also called Sault Ste. Marie is directly across the river.)
No way, Canadian officials insist. The plant discharges wastewater into the river, but only after it's treated -- except when the system overflows because of heavy precipitation, which seldom happens. And it never contains the kinds of solid waste plaguing the island, they say.
The standoff inspired angry exchanges in local media and at community gatherings. The Bumsteads sued the Canadians. State and provincial authorities got involved. U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, a Menominee Democrat whose district includes the island, even asked the State Department to intervene.
Technicians from both countries conducted extensive water tests, searching for the source of off-the-charts E. coli bacteria levels downstream from the East End plant. Both sides produced results they said supported their positions.
Tensions eased this fall as the levels dropped and seasonal island residents left. But they could flare up again next summer if bacteria counts spike and floating waste again washes ashore.
Dave Martin, environmental health director for Chippewa County, Mich., is optimistic the worst is over. The Canadian Sault Ste. Marie just finished a $70 million upgrade of the East End plant, and Martin thinks it's no coincidence that bacteria readings are lower and complaints about solid waste have dropped.
"At this point, I think we're looking only at better things for the quality of the river," says Martin, whose office plans to resume testing after the spring thaw.
Don't count on it, says Don Elliott, engineering services director for the Canadian city. He says the upgrade has improved the plant's performance but won't solve the pollution problem because the plant didn't cause it in the first place.
"I think most agencies would agree the water is too cold for the bacteria to survive; that's why numbers go down in the fall," Elliott says. "My opinion is that the E. coli readings will be high again."
The city has a second waste plant farther upstream. So does Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan. But Elliott doesn't blame them, either.
Then where is the stuff coming from?
"That remains a mystery," he says, but there probably are multiple sources.
Even untreated sewage is mostly just a grayish liquid by the time it reaches the Ontario plant, Elliott says during a tour. It's channeled through screens that filter out larger solids, which form a sludge that is dried out and trucked to a landfill.
During treatment, wastewater is held in tanks, where tiny solid particles settle to the bottom and are pumped out. Fats, oils and greases float to the top and are skimmed off.
The remaining water is disinfected, then piped into the river. Previously, the Ontario plant used chlorine as its cleanser. The new system zaps bacteria with ultraviolet light.
Even before the upgrade, the treatment was good enough for the plant not to have caused the high E. coli levels, Elliott says. And the screening made it virtually impossible to have ejected the solid waste and muck that found their way to Sugar Island.