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Resident spots toxic substance draining into Addison Oaks lake

by CJ Carnacchio

June 22, 2011

A milky white plume surrounded a drainage pipe leading from a maintenance building into Adams Lake at Addison Oaks County Park. Photo by Jim Fox.
Oakland County officials say it was paint thinner. Area resident Jim Fox believes it was gasoline.

Whatever it was, both agree it was a toxic substance that had no business draining into a swimming lake at Addison Oaks County Park in Addison Township.

"You're not supposed to put any type of toxins into a water supply, let alone into a lake where families swim," Fox said.

County officials indicated a cleanup was immediately conducted and corrective measures are being taken to ensure it doesn't happen again.

"We made sure that they were doing everything that was appropriate," said Jim Wineka, environmental supervisor for the county Water Resources Commissioner's Office (WRC). "This was a real small thing, but obviously important. We were really happy the resident brought it to our attention, so we could get it fixed."

At issue is an underground drain pipe leading directly from a maintenance building sink into Adams Lake, one of two lakes in the 1,140-acre park located off W. Romeo Rd. between Lake George and Rochester roads.

"It was an illicit connection," Wineka explained. "It should be connected to the sanitary (sewer), obviously."

Adams Lake (shown circled on the map to the right) is used for swimming and has a beach located directly across from the maintenance building.

Fox and his children were fishing from shore on Thursday, June 16 when he observed a "huge white plume" in the water surrounding the pipe (see front page photo) and smelled the odor of gasoline.

"It spread out probably 15-20 feet," he said, noting he took photos and obtained a water sample just in case testing was required.

Fox looked around and realized the pipe led to a park maintenance building.

Fox made an "illegal dumping" complaint to the Oakland County Sheriff's Department and filed a report with a deputy who came to the scene to investigate.

"By the time the deputy came up there, it was an hour-and-a-half later, and you could still see (the plume)," he said. "The smell was just immense . . . We were 30 feet from the shoreline and you could smell just a heavy, heavy gas (odor)."

In his report, the sheriff's deputy described the plume as a "white milky substance coming from a drainage pipe," but made no notes regarding any type of odor, gasoline or otherwise.

According to the report, a park employee told the deputy he "had been painting horse shoe pits and that when he was finished, he was advised to go to (the) maintenance (building) and wash the rollers." He also told the deputy he "did not know the drain from the basin . . . drained into the lake."

Dan Stencil, executive officer for Oakland County Parks and Recreation, said it was "absolutely" paint thinner, not gasoline as Fox contends.

Wineka noted paint thinner could create a large plume because "a little bit of that goes a long way on surface water."

Stencil admitted there was "no reason" for park employees to be using paint thinner because "it was a latex paint that was being cleaned you don't need thinner for that."

Paint thinner is used on oil-based paints, whereas soap and water can be used on brushes coated with latex paint, which is water-based.

Fox found it hard to believe it was just some paint thinner given the size of the plume and its smell.

"I know the difference between gasoline and (paint thinner)," he said. "I've spilled gas before."

"I think they must have emptied the tank on one of the lawn mowers or something," Fox added. "Maybe some equipment had old gas (in it) and they let it run right down the sewer."

Stencil said park employees cleaned up the paint thinner "as good as they were able to" using absorbent devices specifically designed for such spills.

As for why there's a drain pipe running directly from a sink to a lake, no one had a definitive answer.

"I have no idea," Stencil said. "That was originally the carriage house for the Buhl estate (when the land was private property). Several years ago we had gone through and addressed a number of plumbing issues. This is a total surprise to us that this existed. To be honest with you, I thought that any potential issues like this were dealt with years ago."

"I don't how it happened out there," Wineka said. "It could have been there for 50 years, when that building was built. I don't really have any of that background."

Based on past experiences, the improper connection didn't surprise Wineka.

"Over the years, we've found lots of these things throughout the county through our investigations," he explained.

Wineka indicated most of the time such connections "inadvertently happened" when residents or contractors "tap into a stormwater pipe and they think it's a sanitary pipe."

"Over the years, we've eliminated lots and lots of these illicit connections," he said.

Both Stencil and Wineka indicated use of the sink in question has been discontinued until the problem can be rectified.

"They're not using that until they get it properly connected to the sanitary (sewer)," Wineka said.

In order to verify that all the other sinks, toilets, drains, etc. in the maintenance building are properly connected to the sanitary sewer, Wineka said dye will be run through each of them throughout the entire facility.

When asked if Adams Lake has ever been tested for any chemical pollution or contaminants, Stencil replied, "We've tested it for E. coli (bacteria), but we haven't tested it for anything else."

He noted that "no one at this point has indicated that there's any health issues."

When asked if Adams Lake will be tested in light of this incident, Stencil responded, "I'm assuming as part of this process we will be doing some water testing just to make sure there isn't any cumulative effect. I'm sure we'll have to get a stamp of approval."

Kenneth Montgomery, a detective with the Environmental Investigation Section of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality/Department of Natural Resources, said the county's WRC is handling the situation and is supposed to forward a written report to the state agency.

Montgomery indicated whether or not the state takes any action regarding this incident "depends on the nature of (the county's) response to us."

"It could become a criminal matter, however, it doesn't have to be if it was something that was done accidentally," he explained. "The employee should not have done what he did. The park should not have had that illegal connection. Conceivably, it could be a criminal investigation and prosecution, but I kind of doubt it."

Despite what county officials said, Fox believes "the whole lake is contaminated." He said it "stinks" and "the beach area is all black and nasty."

As a longtime park-user, Fox's perception of the lake's deteriorating condition upset him greatly. "I love Addison Oaks. I've been going there since I was a kid," he said. "I've been going out there for 30 years and actually moved to this area partly because of that park."