By Robert Tomlinson
THREE RIVERS — The superintendent of the Three Rivers Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP) gave Three Rivers city commissioners an update on one of the biggest force main breaks in the city in recent memory, noting at one point it could be a year before a new force main could be put in place.
Superintendent Taylor Davis said that a “permanent bypass” would be used before a new force main is put in place to divert new wastewater away from the part of the force main that broke and send it to the plant, a setup that could be in place by the end of this week.
“I don’t have a great timeline, I’m hoping by Friday, but that’s a big hope,” Davis said.
That update was just one part of a much larger update given to Three Rivers city commissioners Tuesday nearly a week and a half following a force main break on Friday, July 7 that spilled 500,000 gallons of untreated wastewater into the St. Joseph River.
According to the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency (BHSJ), the incident occurred at approximately 9:30 p.m. on July 7 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. That construction is currently being done by Davis Construction.
A no-contact advisory was not issued until the afternoon of Monday, July 10, due to communication errors by Davis, failing to contact both the health department and local media until the morning of July 10.
A temporary bypass to direct wastewater that would’ve gone through the force main in question to the Wastewater Treatment Plant has been in place across a portion of Constantine Street south of the Broadway Street intersection since Saturday, July 8, leading to a closure of the street ever since. Davis said it will not be open back up until they are done with the temporary bypass and the permanent bypass is in place.
Davis told commissioners during Tuesday’s meeting he was originally contacted about the break and spill at 6:45 a.m. on Saturday, July 9, and at 7:45 a.m. a trench to a manhole was put in place to stop the flow of wastewater to the river, and the spill was contained at that time. The main pipe that broke, Davis said, was the force main from the pump station that pushes the wastewater to the WWTP, but during work on fixing the pipe, it was discovered another pipe had broken.
“We were going to open up the gravity sewer, and when the air was released from the gravity sewer, which is coming from the northwest side of the city, it was found the gravity coming from that side was also broken right next to the force main,” Davis said.
Davis said the pipe that broke was approximately 20 feet underground, and when repair crews found the break, Davis said they noticed the water table was “so high” and the silt “just kept moving under the pipe and kept exposing it.”
“We fought that for four, five days of just digging, putting rocks in to stop all the silt from moving,” Davis said. “Two days ago, we decided that the line is no longer savable.” That led to the decision to put in the “permanent bypass.”
When asked by City Manager Joe Bippus if there were any theories to how the break happened, Aaron Davenport, senior vice president of the city’s consulting engineering firm Jones and Henry, said there was one, but only gave a vague statement as to what it could be, noting City Attorney TJ Reed’s presence in the commission room.
“I am positive this is going to ultimately result in some sort of insurance claim somewhere, so it’d be a little irresponsible to speculate,” Davenport said. “The one thing I will say is that when you’re working along the river on 75-year-old infrastructure that hasn’t been touched in seven-plus decades, things do happen. It was fortunate in this case that we are doing the work, and there was a contractor right on hand to be able to help with this. The fact that we were able to respond to this quickly with the crews we had available was certainly a major plus.”
Davis also addressed the lack of timely communication with the health department about the spill, saying it was his fault “completely,” adding that while it was his first sewer overflow as superintendent, it “wasn’t an excuse.”
“To correct that going forward, I’m going to have an SOP [standard operating procedure] of hey, this happened, I’m going to call EGLE, I’m going to call health department, and call the newspaper, then let the pollution people know,” Davis said. “My first thought was to contain it from going into the river, then I worked 21 hours, and by the time I drove home at that point, I just didn’t think about it. I made an error, and I apologized to multiple people. I’ve gotten a lot of angry phone calls.”
When it came to the banks of the river, Davis said there’s “really no cleanup” for that, as chemicals used to clean the banks would get into the surface water.
Later on, Davis said the force main that broke will no longer be in service once the new pump station has finished construction, which he expects to have happen in just over a year, and it is in the plans to have the new force main go through the new station, and the old main would be officially abandoned.
“Part of what we’re putting in is part of the upgrade, and then going back to the old lift station is not part of it,” Davis said. “It’s kind of a mix of putting in the new infrastructure and then the temporary until the new building is done.”
Davis estimated the current costs would be up to $150,000 for the contractors doing the digging, up to $70,000 for the bypass pumping at this point, and “other small issues” that have cost another $20,000. Bippus said there are emergency funds available, but the city is currently working with the contractor to negotiate costs, as well as filing insurance claims to see what they could cover.
“We have money in our balance to pay for it, but whether we have to use it all, it’s too early,” Bippus said.
Velting Contractors, an excavation company, is assisting the city with the bypass.
Davis said the WWTP will also work on having sensors to detect any spills or breaks faster to notify the plant quicker. Currently, there are only sensors set up at a certain level on the village of Constantine’s flow.
“Hopefully, moving forward, I’ll look to have an alarm on that one, and an alarm on this one so it can be detected quicker,” Davis said.
Davis said he doesn’t expect any fines to be levied by EGLE or the health department at this point.
Not everyone in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting was pleased with the city’s response to the situation. The lone public commenter at the meeting, Larry Nichols, who had gone around the city in the days following the no-contact order with a “Fire Joe Bippus” sign, called Bippus, Davis, contractors, and the city as a whole “incompetent” over the situation. He also criticized the work done in the days following the spill, claiming workers were “jackhammering” the pipe for five days in a row, and that he as a taxpayer shouldn’t be held responsible for the break and spill.
In other business…
- Commissioners approved the hire of current Three Rivers Public Library Director Bobbi Schoon to be the new finance director for the city. Lowry said Schoon would have to acquire additional municipal accounting skills, but that the city has identified the training and certifications that she would have to take, and has met the prerequisites to be accepted into the training programs. She is expected to start her position on Aug. 1 and work with both the city’s auditing firm and the current deputy city finance director.
- Commissioners approved the use of $32,175 in fund balance to fund an emergency manhole replacement at the intersection of East Michigan Avenue and Middle Street, where a sinkhole at the roadway surface occurred earlier this month.
While discussing the manhole replacement, Department of Public Services Director Amy Roth told commissioners that East Michigan Avenue’s road surface would be addressed by MDOT in approximately the year 2029.
- Commissioners authorized the purchase of three parcels from the St. Joseph County tax sale – 614 Walnut St., 918 S. Lincoln Ave. and a vacant lot at the corner of 10th Street and Madison Street – for a price not to exceed $20,000.
- Commissioners held a closed session for evaluation of Bippus’ job performance, as well as other attorney opinions regarding “other matters.”
Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 or email@example.com.