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Published: Sunday, 8/17/2003

Blackout caused massive pollution

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The nation's worst power outage has taken a toll on the ecology of Lake Erie and its tributaries, including the Detroit and Cuyahoga rivers.

Officials said millions of gallons of raw or partially treated sewage have been discharged into the lake and streams from as far west as Ann Arbor, Mich., to communities east of Cleveland. That could drive up bacteria counts for boaters and swimmers who hope to use the lakes for relief from the August heat.

Cleveland had one wastewater treatment plant alone discharge more than 4 million gallons of sewage into Lake Erie over two days, Kara Allison, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency spokesman, said.

Records show the discharges have prompted officials in the Cleveland area to be on guard for signs of cryptosporidium, the parasite blamed for as many as 110 deaths and 400,000 illnesses in Milwaukee after it apparently entered that city's water supply in 1993.

Releases are attributed to power failures and would not likely be subject to enforcement, Ms. Allison said.

In Michigan, state Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Patricia Spitzley declined to speculate about the environmental impact of such discharges from the Detroit area.

“We're not there yet. We're just doing triage,” she said.

Power was restored to the Detroit wastewater treatment plant Friday and to the rest of the metropolitan area yesterday.

The outage also has made the air subject to more pollution: The Michigan DEQ is trying to help ease Detroit's longest lines for gasoline since the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s by getting a U.S. EPA waiver that would allow stations to temporarily sell less-refined fuel.

Detroit, one of the nation's smoggiest cities, normally is required to sell a specially formulated low vapor gas, which is harder to find. Gov. Jennifer Granholm has issued an executive order to have trucks start hauling that type of gas from west Michigan. None was available from closer markets, including Toledo, according to Ms. Spitzley.

“There is a crisis for gas,” she said.

Residents were urged to boil drinking water in the Detroit and Cleveland areas after it was learned that power losses caused a variety of problems, from shutting off distribution pumps to system controls, Kathy Milbourn, U.S. EPA spokesman, said.

No problems were reported with Toledo's water or sewage systems, in large part because the city had immediate sources of backup power.

Plans were being made for the return to service of nine nuclear plants from Michigan to New York that had their reactors automatically scrammed by the power outage. They collectively generate enough electricity to power 5.5 million homes, Steve Kerekes of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said.

Two of those scheduled to be restarted soon - Detroit Edison's Fermi II nuclear plant in northern Monroe County and FirstEnergy's Perry nuclear plant east of Cleveland - have been operating on a combination of backup diesel generators and limited amounts of off-site power since the outage. So has FirstEnergy's Davis-Besse nuclear plant in Ottawa County, although it has been shut down since Feb., 2002 and is to remain idle.

Nuclear watchdogs said a return to full off-site power is important in terms of safety, because they fear the backup diesel generators can be prone to overheating.

Davis-Besse, idle since February of 2002 because of numerous equipment and management issues, will not resume operating in the coming days. Perry and Fermi II will both have to be entirely on off-site power before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will authorize restart, Jan Strasma, agency spokesman, said. Fermi returned to full off-site power yesterday and hopes to begin its restart process this week, John Austerberry, Detroit Edison Co. spokesman, said.



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