The Federal District Court Building on West Fort Street in downtown Detroit is an odd place to find a plumber. Jurors, yes. Lawyers frantic with clients and cases, yes. But a judge with an expert’s understanding of how to transport water and keep it clean? Well, yes to that too. He is 83-year-old U.S. District Court Judge John Feikens.
From his formidable chambers and stately courtroom on the eighth floor, Judge Feikens has spent 31 years deciding grim federal cases of white collar crimes, raucous civil disagreements, and complex bankruptcies and fraud. But the litigation that has defined his distinguished career, and for which southeast Michigan will long revere him, is case number 77-71100.
The Environmental Protection Agency filed the lawsuit initially in 1977 to stop pollution at the Detroit Water and Sewerage plant, the largest in the world. Judge Feikens used his authority in the years since to respond to persistent pollution and expand the case’s boundaries, goals, and importance well beyond what even he could have imagined.
Through formal orders and regular on-the-record hearings in his courtroom, Judge Feikens did what nobody else in Michigan — not governors, congressmen, state legislators, or state environmental directors — was willing to do. He brought leaders from three counties and 48 southeast Michigan communities together to cooperate on a plan to restore the entire 126-mile-long Rouge River.
Under Judge Feikens’ stern and steady guidance the lawsuit has produced a governing blueprint — applicable in any other watershed in Michigan or the nation — for how to manage costly and complex environmental restoration projects across a watershed and, more importantly, how to prevent them in the first place.
His singular achievement is not a legal precedent but a political one. Rather than allow local governments to keep flushing their waste downstream, he made them face the pollution costs together, with terrific results. From Bloomfield Hills to Dearborn and from Plymouth to Garden City, the results clearly show the benefits.
Phosphorous and nitrogen from fertilizers, sewage, and chemicals is declining. Oxygen levels, even in the most industrialized reaches near the river’s mouth, are now high enough to support a small sport fishery. Wayne County now sponsors a triathalon that begins with a swim in Newburgh Lake, along the river’s middle branch in western Wayne County. It is the first time in 40 years that authorities have allowed swimming in the lake.
In early May, encouraged by a warm afternoon, Alvin Poole, a retired machinist, talked about the improving conditions while walking along the shore of Newburgh Lake. The water was surprisingly clear and the lake’s distant shore was fresh and green with spring. At least 50 other people joined Mr. Poole, among them young lovers, families having picnics, and people casting fishing lines. It was a scene of such civic beauty and peace that Mr. Poole marveled. After all, he remarked, for much of his adult life in the Detroit region, Newburgh Lake and the Rouge River were essentially a vast urban sewage pipe.
“It looked like a slop ditch,” said Mr. Poole, a retired auto parts plant worker, sweeping his arm across the mile-long lake. “Now it’s altogether different. It doesn’t smell. It is a beautiful place to come to. It’s sure a big improvement from what it used to be. It’s so much better that people talk about it here all the time.”
Such changes in the Rouge watershed are so remarkable that interest is now building for the idea of replicating the successes elsewhere. Earlier this year, Judge Feikens met with many of the areas influential civic leaders, among them Bill Ford Jr., to form a consortium that will bring to other major rivers in the Detroit region the same engineering and political tools that have helped the Rouge.
Last February, when the consortium’s participants first met, Judge Feikens told the gathering that there really is no choice if Michigan’s largest metropolitan area is to stand with New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, and Portland as a premier place to live and work.
“This is an evolutionary concept,” said Judge Feikens in an interview. “People are becoming more aware that you can’t have any quality of life if you don’t have clean water. You cannot have any world-class industries in southeast Michigan, like the Ford Motor Company, unless the area itself has a very definite concept of quality of life and a very definite idea of what’s necessary to have quality of life.”
Source of the problem
The lawsuit in Judge Feikens’ court — and the fresh thinking it has spurred — is a microcosm of state and national experience with “nonpoint” pollution, the kind of water contamination that comes not from one source, such as a factory, but from across the land, where soil, wastes, debris, oils, and chemicals wash into rivers and lakes.
Judge Feikens said the incredible scope of metropolitan Detroit’s nonpoint problem became clear to him in 1983 after the Detroit sewage plant spent six years and more than $500 million, most of it federal money, to fix its pollution problems.
“As the Detroit treatment plant, which is point-source pollution, began to get corrected through the use of a great deal of federal money, monitoring studies also pointed up the fact that we still had a good deal of pollution,” said Judge Feikens in an interview. “Nonpoint source pollution was still out there and had to be corrected.”
The International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canada agency that oversees the Great Lakes, identified the Rouge in the mid-1980s as one of the dirtiest rivers in the upper Midwest. The commission suspected the major problem was sewage overflows into the river from combined sewage and stormwater drains inundated with new water from suburban surfaces. Scientists say tidal waves of rain runoff are pushing sewage and other pollution into waterways because development has actually altered the nature of the region’s river systems.
In Detroit, for example, gauges that the U.S. Geological Survey and other federal agencies maintain show more water is flowing into the upstream reaches of the region’s major rivers — the Huron, Rouge, and Clinton — than they have ever measured. Scientists with the Geological Survey say that is happening because people, work places, schools, post offices, and stores are no longer close together but spread far apart across the land.
This sprawling pattern of development — in full swing since the end of World War II — produces acres and acres of concrete and blacktop that replace absorbant wetlands and forests along the Rouge’s tributaries. Rather than slowly soak into the ground, rain now rushes off asphalt at high rates of speed into stormwater drains and sewage lines and straight into tributaries and the Rouge itself. The vastly increased surge overwhelms municipal storm drains and sewage treatment systems that were never designed to handle all the liquid and solids that now flow into them.
Every time it rains millions of gallons of polluted stormwater and sewage flow into the Rouge and nearly every one of the state’s other rivers, for that matter, because cities and villages across the state have developed in the same way. Even after a light rain, local and state health authorities regularly find too much fecal bacteria in water to allow swimming. Although the data is incomplete, the findings have led some water quality authorities to reach the inescapable conclusion that there is virtually no place in Michigan where it is safe to swim after it rains.
A 2000 report by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality supported that conclusion. The DEQ found that sewage plants overflowed in more than 200 communities over the last five years. Even Traverse City’s sewage treatment plant spilled over last year, and again in June after heavy rains, resulting in swimming advisories for Grand Traverse Bay. Beaches along Lake St. Clair north of Detroit were closed 77 days last summer because of high fecal bacteria counts.