It’s not often that a 35 year old Clean Water Act case finally ends

28 Mar 2013

After almost 36 years, the Detroit Water and Sewer Department (DWSD) is no longer under the supervision of a Federal Judge.  On Wednesday, Judge Sean Cox entered an order closing the 1977 case.

This case started when I was in high school, when the US EPA alleged that the DWSD was violating the Clean Water Act by allegedly failing to treat sewage enough to meet the DWSD’s permit limits.  The case took many twists and turns and for every step forward the DWSD took, it seemed there was a step backward.

In the Spring of 2011, following a stipulated agreement, a new more-broad DWSD Board was appointed and a new Consent Order aimed at achieving compliance with the Clean Waster Act was entered.

Finally, in September of 2011, the Court required the appointment of a committee (the Root Cause Committee) to develop and propose a plan to fix the causes of the DWSD’s failure.  The Root Cause Committee issued a plan of action in 2011 and  a report earlier in March.  The Root Cause Committee had previously made recommendations regarding such things as DWSD governance, rates, personnel and procurement practices.

The Root Cause Report proposed wholesale changes to the DWSD including the creation of two regional authorities, the leasing of the DWSD between those authorities and the payment to the City of Detroit of at least $50 Million in lease payments funded by assessments in lieu of taxes.

The Court refused to order the implementation of the Root Cause Report but agreed that significant progress was being made due to: (1) the more empowered Board, (2) DWSD having its own functional human resources department and (3) DWSD having a new and improved procurement policy.  That progress was reflected in the 2011 Consent Order and MDEQ’s 2013 issuance of a new permit to operate  and so the Judge concluded that such progress warranted closing the case.

Will this “new and improved” DWSD be able to stay on the path to full compliance? Will the new Board seek a regional authority and a payment to the City to make that happen? How will the new emergency manager factor into this?  Only time will tell.

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