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Elkhart County foes of Ontwa Township, Mich., sewer plant plans contacting local leaders for support

Opponents of the Ontwa Township, Mich., sewer plant plans contacted U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, Elkhart County commissioners and Elkhart Community Schools officials.

Posted on April 8, 2014 at 8:55 p.m.

ELKHART — Foes of a planned sewage treatment plant that would discharge into Cobus Creek aren't letting up.

They've contacted U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder and Elkhart Community Schools leaders, among many others, hoping to drum up as much support as they can before Michigan state officials take action in the matter. They're also pounding the pavement in the neighborhoods in and around Cobus Creek, which winds south from Michigan and meanders along the west side of Elkhart County before emptying into the St. Joseph River.

"Our biggest challenge right now is mobilization," Cyndy Herms, who lives with her family along the creek, said at a gathering here of neighbors last week, which drew about 100 people. The more vocal critics get about the Ontwa Township, Mich., proposal "the less attractive it becomes."

Here's more on the Ontwa Township plans:

Word of the sewer plant plans started trickling out to the broader public in February and organizing followed, first among the 150 or so families whose homes abut Cobus Creek, 130 in Indiana and 20 in Michigan. Efforts have expanded to neighbors further out and now, Herms, working through a group called Save Cobus Creek, said the focus is on coming up with scientific data to bolster the case that the plant's emissions would pose a danger. They want to keep any Ontwa Township discharge out of the waterway.

Ontwa Township officials have submitted a request to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for a discharge permit, key before the plans can move forward. The environmental agency will eventually be accepting comments from the public before making a final decision and that's where the foes are hoping to make their case.

"The focus is on the comment period," said Herms, a stay-at-home mom who's helping spearhead the critics' efforts. "That's the only place we can legally speak up."

The Ontwa Township plans call for construction of a plant southeast of Edwardsburg, Mich., to treat the sewage it collects, currently transported to an Elkhart Public Works and Utilities Department facility for treatment here. Treated Ontwa Township sewage, under the change, would be discharged into the Garver Lake outlet from a new plant, ultimately flowing into Cobus Creek and Elkhart County.

Ontwa Township reps maintain that the discharged sewage would be cleaner than the water in Cobus Creek. The actual emissions would be a small fraction of the waterway's current flow.

The critics are skeptical, worried about a spike in the amount of water in the creek and erosion of banks. They worry about the impact to trout and other species. They worry about Ontwa Township's spotty record with Elkhart utilities officials and wonder whether Ontwa Township officials are capable of running a full-fledged sewage treatment plant.

ON THE RADAR SCREEN OF MANY

While not everyone in Elkhart County has taken as critical a stance as members of Save Cobus Creek, the Ontwa Township plans are definitely on the radar screens of many here:

  • “(Walorski) is fully aware of the situation and our staff continues to investigate this matter," said Lindsay Jancek, the lawmaker's spokeswoman, in an e-mail Wednesday, April 8. "As always, we invite anyone with questions or information to contact our office.”
  • "We don't know much about the issue, but we're concerned about it and we'll be working to make sure our interests are protected," Doug Hasler, executive director of support services for Elkhart Community Schools, said Wednesday. The district owns undeveloped property bisected by Cobus Creek, which it plans to use for outdoor school programs.
  • Yoder, the Elkhart County commissioner, said he'd oppose the plans, especially since the city of Elkhart system has ample capacity to treat Ontwa Township waste. "I think we need to be pretty careful when we set up treatment plans, make sure we have a need for another one," said Yoder, who attended the gathering last week.
  • John Hardy, a member of the Elkhart County Parks Department Board, said at the meeting last week that the body hasn't taken a formal stance, but "we don't particularly care for this thing."

Tiffany Myers, an MDEQ rep, said in an email Thursday that officials haven't yet determined the formal period for submission of comments related to Ontwa Township's discharge permit request. All relevant comments will be considered, she said.

Ontwa Township officials are to hold a regular meeting next Monday, and project foes are hoping to attend that to air their concerns.

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




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