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Published: Wednesday, 12/27/2000

Talks could begin next month to end clash over sewer systems

BY LARRY P. VELLEQUETTE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

BLISSFIELD - Negotiations could begin as early as next month to end the conflict between the village of Blissfield and a state agency multimillion dollar requirements that the village separate its sanitary and storm sewer systems.

But a state official said last week that if an amicable resolution can't be found between the village and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, it could be years before the question is likely to be decided in the courts.

Earlier this year, Blissfield contested the terms of a new five year operating permit for its wastewater treatment plant largely because it gave the village only until fall of 2004 to separate its combined sanitary and storm sewer systems.

The largely outdated combined system - one of only two remaining in southeastern Michigan - meant that heavy storms often resulted in sewage overflows into the River Raisin.

“Since any portion of the new permit was contested, the old permit remains in effect until the new permit is worked out,” said Linn Duling, Jackson district supervisor for the MDEQ's surface water quality division. “Right now, we're waiting for the [Michigan Attorney General to assign counsel] to the case so that we can begin negotiations.”

But Blissfield may have little incentive to come to terms on a new permit. Originally, the village had asked for 17 years in which to separate its two sewer systems, a process expected to cost several million dollars and result in sizeable increases in local residents' sewer bills.

In the new permit issued in the fall, MDEQ gave the village - and the city of Adrian, the only other municipality in southeast Michigan that still has a combined system - four years to separate its sewers. The city of Adrian chose not to contest its permit, and officials there have said they believe they can make the Oct. 1, 2004, deadline.

If the village and MDEQ can not reach a settlement on a deadline to fix the village's sewer problem, the dispute would wind its way first through an internal dispute resolution system within the state agency. The village would be given a hearing on the contested permit before an impartial third party, a process that could take as much as three years to accomplish given the system's backlog, Mr. Duling said.

If the village lost its contest of the new permit, it could appeal its case into the local courts, meaning several more years of likely legal battles.

But Blissfield village manager Jim Wanacott said he and other village officials think they can come to terms with the state demands.

“We (the village and MDEQ) both sent letters to each other saying we'd prefer to work this out without entering a courtroom setting,” Mr. Wanacott said.

The village is working on new estimates of what separating the sewer systems would cost. In 1995, estimates of the project were about $3.5 million, Mr. Wanacott said. “I don't think it's gotten any cheaper. It's probably closer to about $5 million now,” he said.

While Blissfield officials would like to get sewer problems behind them, Mr. Wanacott said residents just had an increase in combined water-sewer bills this year to pay for the village's water treatment plant. Fixing the sewer system would add “probably another 25 to 30 percent” to bills, he said.

While the main dispute over the permit has been fought by the village and MDEQ, Monroe County also is interested in the issue. Officials there filed notice that they intended to file suit against Blissfield if it didn't stop sewage discharges into the River Raisin, which Monroe County officials say endanger the lives and livelihoods of their down-river residents.



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