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What is a 100 year rain anyway?

14 Aug 2014

Anonymous_two_red_diceAfter the recent flooding, news reporters came out and pronounced Monday a “100 year rainstorm.”  What does that mean anyway?  Is this mere hyperbole, like “trial of the century”?

The term has a specific impact for both insurance purposes and for planning.  Your flood risk determines whether you should buy (or whether you are eligible for) flood insurance.  And I assume that, as to sewer backup insurance (there is such a thing), it also affects your rates.  So, given that we’ve had rain storms in Detroit of over 4 inches 4 times over the last 100 years, what is a 100 year storm?

A 100 year rain storm (like a 100 year floodplain) does not mean that it happens only once every hundred years but rather that, statistically, planners believe that there is only a 1% chance of it happening in any one year.  Think about rolling a die.  If you roll a 3 four times in a row (assuming the die is fair), when you roll it a 5th time, its chances of coming up a 3 (or any other digit) is still 1 in 6 or 16.7%.  Weather is a bit more subjective and variable than rolling a die or flipping a coin but the same concept applies. (more…)

First the floods; next the mold

13 Aug 2014

Metro floodingDetroit got a lot of national attention about the 4+ inches of rain that we received on Monday and the freeways that were flooded (so much so that Governor Snyder issued a disaster declaration today).  Less discussed are the basements that filled with water and in some cases sewage that backed up because the sewer systems couldn’t keep up.  As the waters recede, people all over southeast Michigan are trying to figure out what to do next.  Once electricity is safely addressed and the water is gone, the question becomes what to keep and what to pitch.   The basic rule is that if it is hard and non-porous, you can clean it; if not, it must be professionally cleaned or disposed of.  Here are a few additional suggestions:

  • For insurance purposes, take pictures of your basement before beginning any work.
  • Shovel out as much mud as you can as quickly as possible. The mud left behind by floodwaters poses a health hazard, and it is a lot easier to remove before it dries out.
  • Hose off the walls and floors with clean water and then disinfect them with a solution of 1 ½ cups of liquid chlorine bleach to a gallon of fresh water.  NEVER mix bleach and ammonia cleaning products. This will produce deadly chlorine gas.
  • Disinfect all surfaces that were soaked by flood waters with “disinfecting” or “sanitizing” products.  An alternative is to use a mixture of 1/4 cup liquid chlorine bleach mixed into one gallon of water. Remove mildew using household mildew removers or fungicides.
  • Remove the vents or registers of heating and air conditioning ducts, the wall covers for wall switches and outlets that were flooded. Clean and disinfect them as above.
  • All flexible ducting, including dryer connections, should be replaced.

Now comes the truly difficult part – the finished basement- (more…)

The Supreme Court, Environmental Law and Statutes of Repose

12 Jun 2014

SupremeCourtKennedyCenter022This week, the US Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case of CT Corp. v. Waldburger.  The decision dealt with whether the federal Superfund law’s statute of limitations trumps North Carolina’s statute of repose.  In an uncharacteristically short opinion, the Court held that it does not.

Defendant CTS contaminated property which it sold and which was then resold to the plaintiffs.  Plaintiffs sued under the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (the Superfund statute or CERCLA).   CERCLA’s statute of limitations states that if there is a State statute of limitations that begins to run before the federal limitations period begins, then the typically long federal period (which includes a provision that does not “start the clock” until the wrong was “discovered”) to bring suit  governs.  North Carolina has what’s called a “statute of repose” which, in this case, lapsed in 1997, 14 years before the plaintiffs discovered their injuries and filed suit. (more…)

Blight busting in Detroit – best of times/worst of times

29 May 2014

imageThis week, the City of Detroit rolled out its blight plan.  Of course, the national press highlighted the traditional “bad news about Detroit” story that we’ve heard for 40 years, replete with the traditional photo of the Ren Cen with a burned out house in the foreground.

The reports cite the negative big scary numbers: $850 Million to demolish most of the blight in the next five years; the City has access to about 1/2 of that; 84,641 blighted or nearly blighted structures and vacant lots, 1/2 of which should be demolished and cleaned up immediately; 93% of the properties held by governments need to be knocked down or cleaned up.

Well, that sure sounded bad but up at the Mackinac policy conference, Mayor Duggan told the most uplifting (in my opinion) Detroit blight story that I have ever heard. He talked about his goal to increase the City’s population by the end of his term – 3 years away.

Mayor Duggan talked about relighting the City’s streetlights, he talked about improved emergency response and about other issues.  But the best part of his talk was about blight. He discussed his new neighborhood approach – focusing on one neighborhood at a time; not waiting 3 years to take the properties back for taxes and, most importantly, telling owners of blighted homes to either agree to fix the homes in 6 months or lose them. Amazingly (to everyone including Mayor Duggan), many of the owners have stepped up and begun making repairs. The City has an auction site, which has gotten some national notice and, literally, thousands of people have shown up for open houses and the City has sold homes, sometimes for more than suburban homes. The Mayor discussed one neighborhood with 49 homes slated for demolition – after using his new approach, that list was cut to nine.

Certainly there are areas of the City that will need to be swept clean (and hopefully primed for redevelopment), and there are areas that won’t be addressed for a while, but the Mayor’s neighborhood program was a very uplifting breath of fresh air.

Earth Day at 44…. still crying?

22 Apr 2014

Earth Day brings me right back here

Earth Day brings me right back here

Happy Earth Day 44.  We have come a long way from the challenges and problems that led to the first Earth Day –  a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California; the dead zone in Lake Eriesmog in Los Angeles and burning rivers in the Midwest.

The first Earth Day led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of environmental laws like the Clean AirClean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.  As the EPA and its state counterparts have continued to regulate, there has been a backlash of business and media outcry which certainly impacts the public’s views.

The challenges we face today are more complex and likely more daunting than those of 44 years ago.  We still have oil spills, but they are from rail cars, pipelines, larger ships and deeper wells.  Lake Erie and many other bodies of water are still challenged by more diffuse and “below the radar” sources of contamination.  While reducing the impacts of asbestos, lead and NOx from our daily lives, and healing the ozone hole, we now face questions regarding greenhouse gasses, smog impacts from and in China unlike anything LA ever faced, and the challenges and benefits posed by fracking.

Once the “low hanging fruit” of easy cleanups were “picked,” what we were left with was less shocking or engaging than dead fish and burning rivers.  Consequently, there’s much more debate about the best way to address them or whether they need to be addressed at all.  The issues are just as important – maybe more so, but it’s unlikely that our polarized nation would agree on what changes would be best, if any.

New river protection regulations on the way?

14 Feb 2014

After the non-stop coverage of the spill into the Elk River in West Virginia, we are seeing reports of a spill of 82,000 tons of coal ash into a North Carolina river. The subject of coal ash has lain dormant for a while but this Duke Energy spill is like opening an old wound.  As our regular readers know, EPA has proposed new rules for coal ash storage in the wake of a  Tennessee spill in 2008.  There was another spill in Wisconsin in 2011 and the rules languished. Given this week’s coal slurry spill in West Virginia, rivers in the southeast might be feeling like endangered species.

This fall, a citizens suit was filed in West Virginia federal court (unrelated to the Elk River case) and at the end of January, the EPA agreed to issue coal ash rules by December 19th of this year. Whether the rules treat coal ash as a hazardous waste, a non-hazardous waste or some combination of the two, remains to be seen but it appears that some regulation of this reportedly second largest waste stream in the country will be implemented.  As I have blogged before, Michigan already has more river-protective regulations than many other states and it is about time that these other states are brought up to a higher standard to prevent these major spills.

We have started to realize just how important our rivers are and whether it’s bad luck or bad stewardship, we appear to be on a path to get the regulations needed to protect them.

Water, water everywhere.

29 Jan 2014

Picture006Did you ever think about where your water comes from and what may be in it?  I have a good friend who never thought about the fact that there was a finite amount of water and that certainly some of what came out of his tap had, at some point, likely passed through someone else’s bladder. What that means is that treatment of wastewater has an impact on drinking water quality and the public health.

We’ve recently learned that the DWSD and the local counties have been trying to work out a deal to “regionalize” the Detroit Water System – thus far – to no avail.  Also, just this week, rumors have surfaced that the DWSD may be cutting 40% of its staff – a reorganizing of the system which, if successful, could lead to lower operating costs, lower borrowing costs and may make a multi-county regional deal more likely. If not, the system could be back in trouble.  There have also been rumors of a possible sale of the system or that the Detroit Emergency Manager might strike some sort of deal without Oakland and Macomb counties – which hold many of DWSD’s customers.

This is a big deal because the DWSD supplies drinking water to 126 communities in southeast Michigan, other than Detroit, serving roughly 40% of the state’s population.  The system is one of the Country’s oldest, dating back to the 1830’s and the infrastructure issues involved are huge, given that the system has five water treatment plants treating water from two intakes in the Detroit River and a third in Lake Huron. As we reported earlier, because the DWSD was able to achieve compliance on the other *ahem* end, it was finally let out of what was then one of the oldest ongoing lawsuits in existence.

However, wastewater treatment plants (which discharge treated sewage) don’t always clean everything out of the water and that failures to catch chemicals like pharmaceuticals, can have impacts downstream.  Sometimes, the chemicals get caught by accident without the operators even knowing it! A draft MDEQ report also tells us that there are problems in Michigan’s rivers (some of which may have been there all along and better testing is just now bringing it to light) with higher levels of pathogens of the sort our sewers and septic systems are supposed to eliminate.  While the City’s drinking water meets federal and State standards, those standards don’t test for everything that winds up in the water.  We’ve come along way from the 1969 fires on the Cuyahoga and Rouge Rivers, but we’ve still got a long long way to go.

As far as drinking water, one hopes that the treatment deals with every possible chemical and pathogen but we know that it does not. With a need for infrastructure upgrading and impending staffing cuts, the time seems right to strike a regional deal that benefits everyone in both the short and long terms. Let’s hope the region can pull this off. Sound water and wastewater systems are important for both our health and our economy.