Two More Leaders Who Rose to the Challenge in Macomb
Prosecutor, commisioner identify pollution insults
December 1, 1999 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
Carl J. Marlinga, Macomb County Prosecutor
It was the grass clippings theory that really sparked Carl Marlinga's interest.
During an emergency public meeting in the summer of 1994, state environmental officials blamed the fecal contamination that closed Lake St. Clair beaches partly on lawn service companies that allegedly dumped clippings into canals along the shoreline.
Mr. Marlinga, who had been elected prosecutor in 1984, doubted clippings were the culprit but dispatched a team to investigate. "They scoured the lakeside, talking to people, looking for any evidence of dumping," he said. "Everywhere they went, the answer was no. But that just left me with the same question. What is causing fecal contamination in the lake?"
The answer came in a pile of documents Mr. Marlinga obtained from the Department of Natural Resources. They showed massive and consistent sewage overflows from retention basins and treatment plants into the Clinton River, which drains into Lake St. Clair. Mr. Marlinga also discovered that the state permit for operating the largest plant, a two-mile long underground sewage storage basin in Oakland County, had expired in 1978 and had never been renewed. It was a clear violation of clean water laws.
When the DNR stepped in to issue the plant a new permit in 1994, Mr. Marlinga filed an administrative challenge. He argued that the new permit allowed the plant to do the same thing it had always done: dump millions of gallons of raw sewage into the river every time there was a hard rain.
Mr. Marlinga's challenge was the first ever made by a county government in Michigan to prevent sewage overflows. It resulted in negotiations between the DEQ, 14 Oakland County cities that co-owned the plant, and Macomb County.
Last fall, the cities agreed to spend $130 million to enlarge the retention basin and take other steps to prevent sewage from polluting the Clinton River. The agreement also caused the DEQ to begin enforcing the law along the Lake St. Clair shoreline and requiring other cities to begin modernizing treatment plants to eliminate raw sewage pollution.
"The arguments from the other side were always it's going to cost too much and we can't afford it," said Mr. Marlinga, explaining that the modernization of sewage treatment is a duty of local governments, and an important first step in solving Lake St. Clair's fecal contamination problem. "But our response was, 'Hey, we're victims of your dumping.' In the end, that argument prevailed."
As a state senator and chairman of the Senate Environmental Affairs Committee from 1979 to 1983, John Hertel helped write Michigan's landmark environmental laws for protecting wetlands and safeguarding citizens from toxic substances.
Mr. Hertel is still marking new environmental milestones. In 1997, when he was elected chairman of the county board, he established a 31-member Blue Ribbon Commission to investigate the causes of Lake St. Clair's pollution and to recommend solutions.
In August 1997 the commission released a report that blamed the contamination on runoff, inadequate sewage treatment facilities, old and unlawful septic systems, loss of wetlands, and lack of enforcement of state water quality laws. The solution: a comprehensive and expensive program of modernization, land use changes, public education, and enforcement.
"It's a multifaceted problem," said Mr. Hertel. "It's like having parts of a car scattered all over the yard. The Blue Ribbon Commission brought the parts together so that now we have a running machine."
In response to the report, Mr. Hertel convinced his colleagues on the county board to establish a new team in the Health Department to investigate incidences of pollution, find and fix faulty septic systems, and locate other sources of contamination. The county named a special environmental prosecutor, the first in the state, to assist the Health Department in bringing cases against violators. And Mr. Hertel established a nine-member Water Quality Board, made up of citizens and elected officials, to oversee the cleanup and serve as watchdogs.
The $400,000-a-year program was launched with the help of a $100,000 grant from the state Department of Environmental Quality. Macomb also is likely to receive a significant amount from the recently-enacted Clean Michigan Initiative, an environmental bond fund that provides $165 million over the next decade for water quality monitoring, watershed protection, cleaning up contaminated sediments, and modernizing sewage treatment plants.
Mr. Hertel said his respect for the land and clean water was instilled early. "My father always took me and my two brothers to places in the United States to teach us about history and show us the great beauty," he said. "From those trips I developed very strong feelings about our roles as individuals and about posterity. It's not about government doing things for us now. It’s about government doing things for posterity. That is why cleaning up Lake St. Clair is so important.”