September 1, 2014

Solving E. Coli issue could be long, drawn out process

By John Fischer|Staff Writer
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WHITNEY TOWNSHIP — Although the E. Coli at the Singing Bridge Public Access may not be extremely harmful, the Department of Environmental Quality decided now was the time to address the situation.

DEQ Toxicologist Shannon Briggs, reiterated that point at a special meeting that the DEQ, Central Michigan District Health Department, Whitney Township, Arenac County and Environmental Canine Services officials were in attendance at Monday at the Whitney Township Hall.

“This isn’t hamburger E. Coli,” she said. “This is a generic E. Coli … it could be harmless.”

However, she added the presence of E. Coli could also mean the presence of other contaminants, which is the main purpose for the closure of the beach.

Briggs said the DEQ is required to grade water environments every two years in a report to Congress. If the standards are not being met, the state becomes obligated to fix the problem.

The situation at Singing Bridge must be detailed in a plan to correct the problem by 2017, according to mandates, but Briggs said her goal was to have a grasp on the matter by next year.

In response to the contamination advisory, the state of Michigan is obligated to allocate funding to monitor the immediate area at the Singing Bridge beach, but DEQ Senior Environmental Analyst Charlie Bauer said any further efforts, such as testing along the Whitney Drain, where Township Supervisor Fran Semenick confirmed E. Coli had been detected, would be left up to the health department, DEQ and any other entity involved in fixing the situation.

According to Briggs, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is one source of grant funding for a project such as this, and even hinted that a portion of a specific coastal zone opportunity in the amount of $12 million may be available.

Jon Bloemker, district supervisor of the DEQ, said it is playing catch up as far as monitoring waters in the area.

“We’ve only been monitoring these (lakes) since about 2000,” he said, adding some areas along the west coast of Michigan have been monitoring Lake Michigan waters since the mid-70s.

Aside from diagnosing the specific type of E. Coli and other contaminants, other problems could arise.

“This could be a wet-weather problem,” said Bauer. “If it’s a dry summer, that could cause problems in monitoring.”

“The drain goes into other counties (Iosco and Ogemaw),” District III Commissioner Mike Snyder said. “Also, the farmers have tiles now. The cows do their thing, that could be ending up in the drain.”

Snyder also said Iosco County has been especially non-compliant in addressing other issues with the Whitney Drain thus far.

A beach sanitary survey was conducted in 2007, but due to a “relatively good year,” no conclusive information was gathered, said Michelle Patton, director of environmental services.

According to Bauer, the key is to put together a good study design in which the access officials monitor the access, start isolating areas, like storm sewers upstream, and once problem areas are identified, tracking is performed. He said a study design would be created in conjunction with all involved over the winter and March 15 was set as a temporary meeting to start the proceedings.

“We have to be precise to eliminate each possibility,” said Mark Janeczko, supervisor of the environmental health department for Arenac County. “We can’t just go up a river in a canoe and take samples.”

Another unique approach could be implemented into the study — Environmental Canine Services.

Scott Reynolds, owner of the company based in Vermontville, Mich., said in 2007, while working for the state, he and his wife Karen began training a dog to pinpoint human sewage and detergents, enabling officials to be able to quickly identify areas that may be of concern, much the same way a drug dog is able to search for drugs.

“He’s about 87-percent accurate,” Scott said.

He added while this method has occasionally found direct sources of E. Coli, the more common result is it would narrow the search from 100 possible locations to around four or five.

Briggs said there is plenty of homework left to do before deciding on a specific study design.

“We don’t want to just start throwing money at the problem,” she said.

Specific problems also have to be proposed in the study, said Bauer.

“We can monitor everything, but without specific questions, it could be useless,” he said.

Also, there could be illicit connections.

“I don’t think we’ll find just one place with problems,” Briggs said. “We could see hundreds of illicit connections … I’ve seen upwards of 9,000.”

After the study is designed over the winter, officials will begin monitoring the designated areas throughout summer, at which time a better understanding of the problems will be known and can be more thoroughly addressed.

Briggs added typical water sampling of this magnitude requires somewhere in the vicinity of $2,000-3,000; however, she would like to be able to have upwards of $10,000 to ensure satisfaction.

She also said because federal grant monies would most likely be obtained, the health department would be in charge of the operation, with the DEQ to work closely by its side.

In all events, officials in attendance said regular notification would be given to local governing officials.

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