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GLIN==> Sugar Island shoreline soaked in sewage

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Sugar Island shoreline soaked in sewage

With sewage from Ontario's East End Sewage Plant landing up in the St. Marys River, an international waterway,
question of responsibility remains up in the air.

SUGAR ISLAND - Picture a pristine beach with a remarkable view, a place to gather with family and friends. Now picture a beach soaked in raw sewage and materials, with a smell fierce enough to make you sick. Which would you rather have? While the answer may be obvious, the residents of Sugar Island's north shore aren't getting a choice. What's being handed to them on a regular basis is a toxic mess, courtesy of Ontario's East End Sewage Plant.

Reports of raw sewage in the area are nothing new to residents who also had to deal with a large spill last August, when somewhere between 400,000 and 2 million gallons of sewage entered the St. Mary's river. At that time the Ontario Spills Action Committee reported the spill promptly to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. But this time no one is taking the blame, and the situation has escalated as water quality continues to deteriorate.

On June 15, Chippewa County Health Department officials issued a "no-body contact advisory" for residents in the area of 55 N. Westshore Drive, Williams Drive and Village Road, after analyzing water samples in response to resident concerns. The tests yielded a high E-coli count, which presents a health danger to anyone coming in contact with the water.

According to Inter-Tribal Council Environmental Coordinator Mike Ripley, "Human contact with E-coli can lead to a whole host of diseases."

Ontario is attempting to take care of the problem by upgrading their sewage plant. Although the upgrade is under way, the plant is still spitting the sewage into the waterway, directly in line with the current that leads to the north shore of Sugar Island. The upgrades were originally slated to be completed this spring, but have faced setbacks. State Representative Gary McDowell, D-Rudyard, said a recent vandalism attack on one of the structures has placed the opening behind schedule.

"I believe it was delayed due to an arson fire being set on one of the pieces of large plastic pipe, which had to be specially ordered and made," said McDowell, who recently met with families concerning the situation.

What makes the situation even stickier is the location of the problem. With Canada and U.S. sharing the St. Mary's waterway, the question of responsibility remains up in the air. It seems no one is sure how to handle an international incident.

According to CCHD Environmental Health Director Dave Martin, this type of situation normally falls in the hands of the DEQ, but right now it is the local health department that has stepped up to bat, working with Joan Rose of Michigan State University and faculty from Lake Superior State University.

With CCHD having limited funding resources from their beach monitoring grant, Rose has donated her experience, time, grant monies, and lab facilities to assist in testing samples.

"Joan has national and international credentials in tracking human waste and sewage, and has testified before Congress," said Martin, who also credited the work of residents.

"Sugar Island residents get the most credit for bird-dogging this," he said, adding that the documentation being provided to CCHD has been "very eye opening."

Bay Mills Water Quality Specialist Amanda Bosak attended a recent meeting held by CCHD, and was surprised to hear that the department does not in itself have the means to get on the water to take samples. She said residents have actually ferried people out to sample with their own boats.

While the issue of waste on the shorelines has only come forward to the mainstream media in recent years, residents of the island say it has been going on for some time.

Allan Swanson, a full-time resident of the island, said he can remember things appearing on shore that shouldn't have when he was younger.

"I can remember similar occurrences from when I was a child," he said. "And I'm talking back in the 1950s. We didn't have the things that are appearing today though, such as condoms and tampons."

Swanson said his shoreline hasn't been affected as much as those living along Masta Bay, but he has seen "scum and muck."

Bay Mills tribal member and island resident Jim Sally expressed concern about hypodermic needles appearing in the water. While he resides on the Bay Mills Reservation at the other side of the island, he has lived most of his adult life on the island and remains concerned.

"Hypodermic needles, that's medical waste," said Sally. "And what's going on our shore has got to be going on their's [Ontario]. It just so happens the wind blows over to the American side more often and it lands here."

The wind and the weather seem to be responsible for moving the sewage along. A blustery day or a storm can leave the shorelines scattered in sewage. And as it stands right now, Sugar Island's shore appears as if it is being used as toilet paper to soak up Ontario's waste.

The no-body contact advisory will remain in effect indefinitely as CCHD plans to continue the water tests until they reveal a safe level. After that point steady monitoring will also take place. As far as clean up is concerned, with no one agency in charge of the situation, the mess looks like it will remain for now with investigation into confirming the source continuing, although Martin and McDowell both agree that evidence points to the East End Sewage Plant. On Ontario's side the Algoma Health Unit has been contacted and is working on an investigation from their end, but must work within the jurisdictional boundaries of the Garden River Reserve.

"They are cooperating, becoming more aware," said Martin. "But the wind tends to blow toward the U.S shore, bringing debris with it. We don't think it's intentional."

Martin added that he has been in contact with U.S. Congressman Bart Stupak's office and that they have contacted the Canadian Embassy and sent photos as well. McDowell said he plans to work closely with Stupak on getting the Environmental Protection Agency involved and garnering funds for the clean up.

But before a clean up can begin, the source must be contained. And with the Ontario plant behind schedule for completion, it seems residents may have to endure the sewage for a bit longer, something that is no surprise to Swanson.

"The township needs to be more assertive," said Swanson. "And the federal level needs to be inspired. Until that happens there is no sense in getting your blood pressure up over it."

If a clean up takes place in the future, Bosak said it would be a big undertaking.

"The sediments would have to be dredged up and stored somewhere," she said, adding that the cost would be considerable. Bosak suggested that, if not already being done, the residents of Sugar Island should attempt to work together with those residents of Ontario who are facing the same issue.

Anyone with questions or concerns can contact the Chippewa County Health Department at 906-635-3620.

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