A look at the section of the St. Joseph River just south of the Broadway Street bridge in Three Rivers. A force main break in Three Rivers Friday evening spilled 500,000 gallons of untreated wastewater into the river, causing a no-contact advisory to be issued Monday morning for the river between the bridge and the village of Constantine. (COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON)
By Robert Tomlinson
THREE RIVERS — A failure to contact the local health department in a timely manner as per legal requirements was the main cause of a delay in the issuance of a no-contact advisory for the St. Joseph River following a force main break in Three Rivers Friday afternoon that spilled 500,000 gallons of untreated wastewater into the river.
Three Rivers Wastewater Treatment Plant Superintendent Taylor Davis said in a phone interview Tuesday that while he had called the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) early Saturday morning around 7 a.m. to alert them to Friday night’s force main break, he did not contact the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency (BHSJ) until Monday morning.
“I contacted EGLE five minutes after I found out on Saturday at 7 a.m., and then EGLE didn’t answer,” Davis said. “It’s my first sanitary sewer overflow, and I had made a mistake and did not contact the health department until Monday morning.”
According to EGLE, entities are required to report such breaks to EGLE, the local health department and a “daily newspaper of general circulation” not more than 24 hours after discharge begins. Failure to make the initial notifications within 24 hours is a violation of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.
The no-contact advisory for the river, barring contact with the water between the Broadway Street bridge and the village of Constantine, was issued just before 1 p.m. Monday afternoon.
“You have 24 hours after you find out, so I was 24 hours late,” Davis said.
EGLE Communications Manager Hugh McDiarmid Jr. confirmed in an email Tuesday that Davis had left voice mails Saturday morning for two EGLE staffers, but those messages were not retrieved until Monday morning.
“At that point, EGLE notified the plant operators of their legal requirement to alert a local media outlet and local health department, which in turn issued the no-contact advisory,” McDiarmid Jr. said.
McDiarmid added that the department’s Pollution Emergency Alert System hotline, which would have triggered a “more immediate response” from EGLE, was not notified.
In an interview Tuesday, BHSJ Health Officer Rebecca Burns said the department was contacted on Monday morning, and while she didn’t take the call, staff got a hold of her after 10 a.m., so she estimated the department was contacted before 10 a.m. Monday.
While Burns admitted it was “concerning” the leak was not reported in the timeframe required, because this is the first time Davis has handled a break like this before as superintendent, she said the only repercussions from the health department for the failure to communicate in a timely manner would be additional education and training moving forward.
“What we would do, knowing that the superintendent is newer in his position, is work on education and putting together a plan for any future events should there be one,” Burns said. “As opposed to a big heavy stick, we would take a different approach.”
However, Burns said she would’ve liked to have advised the public about the leak sooner.
“We would have liked to have notified or gotten word out to the public as soon as it happened, and I’m sure there are people that use the water recreationally over the weekend, and they didn’t know and we didn’t know,” Burns said. “That just puts people at additional risk. That’s why we’ll work with the plant on a long-term plan for how we’re going to address these issues together in the future.”
A portion of Constantine Street just south of the Broadway Street intersection in Three Rivers, pictured here Tuesday, was closed to traffic to allow for bypass hoses to divert wastewater from the broken force main to the Wastewater Treatment Plant. (COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON)
The force main break, which has since been contained, occurred Friday night at 9:30 p.m., according to Davis, at the Constantine Street Lift Station, at the intersection of Constantine Street and Broadway Street at the construction site of a new pump station near the St. Joseph River. A bypass is currently being used to direct wastewater that would’ve gone through the force main in question to the Wastewater Treatment Plant, which according to EGLE was put in place at 8:30 a.m. Saturday.
Constantine Street just south of the Broadway Street intersection was closed to traffic to allow for the bypass hoses to bring the wastewater to the plant, and City Manager Joe Bippus said the road will be reopened once the main is fixed.
Davis did not make a statement as to whether or not anything related to the ongoing construction was the cause of the break, but he said a cause has not been determined at this time and may not be made known for a couple of months while investigations take place.
Davis said he is hopeful the main will be fixed by Wednesday. Testing to determine the safety of the river water, he estimated, could begin by the end of the week after the main has been fixed.
“I want to have [the main] break fixed before the no-contact is lifted, because if the bypass fails, there’s a potential it could go back into the river if it failed,” Davis said. “I’m just trying to keep everyone safe, and there’s no guarantee that something, anything could fail to cause an issue until that’s sealed up.”
McDiarmid Jr., the EGLE communications director, said the agency is currently monitoring the situation and repairs, which are being overseen by local officials, and are providing technical assistance “as needed.” Any determination of violations or fines, he said, will be made after a review of the situation by the agency.
“[The] focus now is on fixing the issue and ensuring it won’t happen again,” McDiarmid, Jr. said.
Davis was originally hired by the city to the Wastewater Treatment Plant on June 7, 2022, and became superintendent following the retirement of former superintendent Doug Humbert in August of 2022, who had been in the position since 2013.
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or email@example.com.