First came the sewer collapse, then came the lawyers, then came the lawsuits.
Just a few days after a bi-county, Oakland-Macomb board that oversees a massive sewer system proceeded with a lawsuit against a similar Macomb board, that same Macomb board today sued the Macomb-Oakland board’s construction contractors for sewer damages.
Got all that?
The matter at hand is the massive sinkhole that caused tens of millions of dollars in damage in 2016 on 15 Mile Road in Fraser. The players here are the Macomb-Oakland Interceptor Drainage District (OMIDD) board and Macomb Interceptor Drainage District (MIDD) board.
The most unusual aspect of this emerging legal battle is that Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller serves on both drain boards.
The OMIDD is suing to protect the agency from paying financial damages for the sewer collapse. The MIDD is suing because it believes three contractors working on a nearby OMIDD sewer project caused physical damages that led to the sewer collapse.
The Christmas Eve sinkhole resulted in more than $70 million worth of repair costs, displaced more than 20 families over the Christmas holiday season and closed a portion of 15 Mile Road on the border between Fraser and Clinton Township for nearly all of 2017.
The MIDD and OMIDD sewer systems are interconnected. The MIDD provides sewer service for 11 communities in Macomb County while the OMIDD serves those communities and several more in Oakland County.
“The OMIDD suit is very unfortunate. We did not file a legal claim against OMIDD, nor do we plan to in the future,” Miller said in a statement. “In fact, the MIDD actually makes up two-thirds of OMIDD, so we would in effect be suing ourselves even if we did want to make a claim against OMIDD.
“Unfortunately, I was advised by the OMIDD legal counsel not to attend the (April 4) OMIDD meeting in which the decision was made to file a claim against MIDD, otherwise I could have pointed this out and avoided this conflict.”
Oakland County says lack of maintenance led to sinkhole
In an Oakland County press release, the Oakland-Macomb drain board blamed the Macomb board for failing to “operate, maintain and repair” the sewer located underneath 15 Mile Road, west of Utica Road. The Oakland-Macomb agency also discounted the prospect of Macomb limiting the blame to contractors.
“Miller claims the sewer collapse was caused by (OMIDD) and wants it to pay for the damage,” the release said. “(OMIDD) officials dispute that. They say (MIDD’s) negligence and failure to inspect or adequately maintain its infrastructure not only caused the sewer to collapse, it negatively impacted (OMIDD), resulting in substantial costs associated with delays in completing work on” a sewage pump station.
Miller, who chairs the MIDD board, said the insurance companies who represent the contractors hired by OMIDD have refused to negotiate a payment.
“There was negligence on the part of the contractors. This is one of the reasons why you carry insurance. We think it is very reasonable to expect the insurance provider of these contract companies to cover the costs from these mistakes,” she said.
“We were hoping and willing to reach a settlement with the insurance provider, but they have not been willing to negotiate with us and have left us with no choice but to bring this lawsuit. These are good companies, but mistakes were made.”
Named in the suit are two general contractors, Jay Dee Contractors and Inland Waters Pollution Control, and a subcontractor that worked for both firms, Metco Services.
Tsunami of sewage damaged pipes?
At a January press conference, Miller said that in 2014 a “tsunami” of sewage water rapidly released into the sewer system mostly led to the damage that eventually created the 2016 collapse. Sewer improvements on the adjoining OMIDD line required the closing of gates that allowed underground workers to engage in pipe improvements in dry conditions. When work was completed on a particular section, the gates were supposed to be gradually raised over several hours.
But in May 2014 the gates were fully opened within seven minutes, which created a gush of sewage that was “like a bomb went off,” Miller said. According to a nationally recognized consultant hired by the county Public Works Office, sped-up reopening of the gates occurred on at least eight occasions prior to the 2016 sinkhole.
According to Miller, “human error” led to the sequence of events as proper protocols were not followed.