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Ontwa Township, Mich., rep says wastewater plant doesn't pose a danger. Some in Elkhart County have their doubts.

Still, some in Elkhart County worry discharge from the wastewater treatment facility would harm Cobus Creek.

Posted on March 5, 2014 at 6:26 p.m.

From his screened-in porch, Dave Gunn can see it all — turkey, deer, coyotes and more.

On this day, about nine mallards float in Cobus Creek, which cuts through his backyard. A woodpecker drills into a tree off in the distance and a chubby squirrel eats from a feeder.

He's enjoyed the outdoor paradise in northwest Elkhart for 42 years, but now he worries it may be in jeopardy. Ontwa Township, just across the state line upstream in Michigan, is planning to build a sewage treatment plant that would discharge into Cobus Creek.

"How can you put one-third more water in there without affecting things?" he said, alluding to the treated water that would be released from the proposed plant, about 5 miles to the north.

A rep from the engineering firm assisting Ontwa Township, Tom Deneau of Wightman & Associates in Benton Harbor, Mich., offers assurances there would be minimal discharge entering Cobus Creek from the plant, which will be built southeast of Edwardsburg, Mich., possibly as early as 2015. The treated water would amount to "a trickle. It's a very small amount compared to the flow in Cobus Creek," he said by phone.

The treated water, he adds, would be cleaner than the stuff in Cobus Creek.

Still, questions are mounting across the state line here in Elkhart County. Gunn has his doubts, and officials from the St. Joseph River Basin Commission, an Indiana state advocacy body, discussed the matter at a meeting Tuesday in Goshen.

"I think (Cobus Creek) is just a beautiful ... resource," Daragh Deegan, aquatic biologist for the city of Elkhart and chairman of the commission, said at the Goshen gathering. "The city of Elkhart is pretty concerned with this proposal."

Mike Machlan, engineer for Elkhart, points to the city's ongoing wrangling with Ontwa Township over tainted wastewater coming from the community.

Ontwa Township has a sewer collection system but currently sends wastewater to Elkhart via underground pipes for actual treatment. Excess hydrogen sulfide that built up in waste from Ontwa Township clients led to the collapse of part of the system coming to Elkhart in December 2011 and the Elkhart Board of Public Utilities last month fined the Michigan locale for not properly addressing the issue.

"Here it's been over two years and they're still not in compliance," said Machlan. A 2013 agreement calls on Ontwa Township to take steps to reduce the presence of hydrogen sulfide to five parts per million in the samples tested, but tests in late January and early February showed higher levels.

For his part, Larry Neff, head of the Elkhart County Parks Department, worries about the impact to Cobus Creek County Park, bisected by the waterway. Park advocates have worked to promote the trout population in the creek, a lure to fishermen.

"We don't want all the effort to go for naught," Neff said.

'IT'S INCONSEQUENTIAL'

The Elkhart County concerns notwithstanding, the precise impact of the $7.59 million Ontwa Township plant has yet to be determined.

Ontwa Township officials last week submitted the paperwork to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for a discharge permit, Deneau said. Now it's up to the regulatory agency to do more thorough testing to get a precise gauge of the potential impact. He's not sure how long the analysis will take, but suspects it would be at least a year before work would start on the facility.

Meanwhile, Deneau downplays possible adverse impacts, noting a similar facility built three or four years ago in Marcellus, Mich.

Some here worry the discharge entering Cobus Creek would warm the coldwater creek, fed by natural springs, harming the population of trout and other wildlife that rely on cooler temperatures. However, the Marcellus facility, too, discharges into a coldwater stream, Deaneau said, and that waterway hasn't suffered adverse impacts.

At the same time, he said wastewater coming from the proposed facility, to have an output capacity of around 600,000 gallons a day, would be just a fraction of Cobus Creek's overall flow. The discharge — which compares to the eight million gallons per day going into the St. Joseph River from the Elkhart wastewater treatment plant — could be contained in a 6-inch pipe.

"It's inconsequential," Deneau said. 

Back at his home along Cobus Creek, Gunn doesn't claim to have the answers. But at this stage, he doesn't think Ontwa Township officials can speak with definitive authority, either.

"Of course they would say there isn't going to be much of a change," he said. "But they don't know anymore than I do."

Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack or visit his Facebook page.


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