Turning rain into smoke

By Joel Thurtell

Mostly, I let people post comments on JOTR without adding my two cents. Now and then, though, a comment will contain some quality that seems to cry out for my reaction. It may be very interesting, very insightful, or it may be so ill-conceived or deceptive that some counter-comment seems needed.

I have no idea who nosleepatnite@yahoo.com is, but I found this person’s comment posted in response to my posting some time ago of the articles I wrote in 1992 about the creation of the Western Townships Utilities Authority by the townships of Canton, Northville and Plymouth. I posted the 18-year-old articles after learning that a key actor in that seemingly ancient drama, Abe Munfakh, is running as a Republican for the state Senate.

My reporting for the Detroit Free Press in 1992 revealed how Munfakh, then a trustee on the Plymouth Township Board, was involved in government transactions that netted the engineering firm he headed millions in fees. Since Munfakh today is boasting of his prowess at “rainmaking” for his firm, Ayres, Lewis, Norris & May of Ann Arbor, it seemed relevant to show how Munfakh made rain for ALNM back in the day. Maybe voters prefer to have Munfakh as their senator, but at least they have a right to understand how his rainmaking skills hugely profited his company once upon a time when he was an elected official involved in creating the engineering project that helped his company to the government gravy train.

Nosleepatnite would like to re-write history and have us believe that this sewer construction project, which cost hundreds of millions in principal and interest, was some kind of gigantic environmental cleanup. WTUA was indeed a cleanup project: It took ratepayers in those three townships to the cleaners.

Here is what nosleepatnite had to say:

Yep, I remember that like it was yesterday.

So Joel, have you delved further into the story to determine if it was beneficial to the three communities?   Have they saved the money as planned?   Has this project contributed to a cleaner Rouge?

From what I’ve read, the Rouge is much cleaner based on the various types of flora & fauna that have been found in & near the watershed.

When this story erupted, I lived in Livonia, near the intersection of Hines Drive & Ann Arbor Trail.  You seriously dreaded being caught by the red light if you were eastbound; it literally smelled like an unflushed toilet.  I had reason to go past there the other day and it was a much changed atmosphere.

So Joel, I challenge you to check it out – now that WTUA is up & running are the cost savings living up to the promises?  Is sewage disposal to WTUA cheaper than if Plymouth / Canton / Northville Townships had stayed with Detroit Water & Sewer?  PLEASE let us know!!!

I did check it out, nosleepatnite. I checked it out five years ago.

In June of 2005, Detroit Free Press photographer Patricia Beck and I paddled a canoe 27 miles up the Rouge River from Zug Island to Nine Mile and Beech. You can read about our experience in our book: UP THE ROUGE! PADDLING DETROIT’S HIDDEN RIVER, published in March 2009 by Wayne State University Press.

You mention that bad Rouge River smell as if it were history. I can tell you from firsthand experience that parts of the Rouge still stink where sewage is dumped in from municipal outfalls.

No, the Rouge was not swimmable in 2005, based on comprenensive sampling and analysis done that year. Given the failure of environmental agencies to continue systematically monitoring water quality today, we can’t say what the condition of the Rouge is. If you ask environmental officials about swimming, though, you’ll likely be told what I was told five years ago: The river’s condition is improved, but it is still not safe to swim in. And that was the goal of a big effort to improve the Rouge that began in the 1980s.

WTUA was very expensive at the time, and it was impossible to justify it as being cost-effective. That is why all those elected officials connected to the project were trounced in the 1992 GOP primary.

A local newspaper called it “sewergate.”

It was a project born in secrecy. Well do I remember the efforts by WTUA stewards to prevent me from seeing public records of the authority’s creation. I had a tough time getting public records from the Plymouth Township clerk, and the executive director of WTUA refused even to let me see copies of the bond and other documents in her custody.

If this project was so beneficial, why was it so hush-hush at the time? Because the officials knew that if voters got a whiff of all the  insider trading, some elected officials would be massacred in the election.

This story was — and still is — about honesty, fair dealing and openness in government. It is about how a clique of government officials helped themselves and their relatives or companies to no-bid work that cost ratepayers millions in excess payments.

Nosleepatnite pretends that environmental benefits of the WTUA project should justify the expenditure. This is one of those “end justifies the means” arguments: Because the project supposedly helped the Rouge, we should approve of it.

One of the aims of WTUA was to make the three townships at least quasi-independent from the Wayne County-controlled sewer system. It just happened that the plan called for pumping Wayne County sewage from the Rouge watershed into the Huron watershed for processing at Ypsilanti. Then it’s sent back to the Lower Rouge along Michigan Avenue. Supposedly “clean” water from the Ypsitanti treatment plant steadies the  volume of water in the Lower Rouge and improves the overall quality of water, because the Ypsi water has been treated, hopefully.

The water is, nonetheless, treated wastewater.

But the environmental argument was secondary to the main pitch — independence form Wayne County.

Privately, there was this other reason for creating WTUA — all those lucrative contracts for lawyers, engineers and PR outfits connected to the project.

By the way, UP THE ROUGE! is available at bookstores, at uptherouge.com, the Wayne State University website, or at amazon.

Drop me a line at joelthurtell@gmail.com

This entry was posted in Adventures in history, Adventures on the Rouge, Bad government, Lakes and streams, Muni bonds, Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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