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Ontwa Township, Mich., sewer treatment plant plans generate "unprecedented" backlash

Foes from Elkhart County and Michigan plan to attend a May 12 Ontwa Township board meeting to keep up the pressure.

Posted on May 9, 2014 at 7:19 p.m.

In his 25 years with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Mike Bitondo has never seen the sort of negative response that the Ontwa Township, Mich., sewer plant plans have generated.

"People started bombarding us with stuff as soon as we got an application," he said Friday, May 9, alluding to Ontwa Township's request for a sewer discharge permit. "It's unprecedented."

That's not to judge the Ontwa Township proposal, which calls for construction of a sewer treatment plant that would discharge into Cobus Creek. It just underscores the strong negative reaction the plans have spurred among many in Elkhart County and neighboring Ontwa Township, just across the state line.

Ontwa Township officials have offered assurances that the treatment plant wouldn't harm water quality in Cobus Creek, which meanders from Michigan through the west side of Elkhart County into the St. Joseph River. Residents from both sides of the state line who live along the waterway, though, aren't convinced and have called for a halt to the plans.

They've met with local leaders lobbying for support and they attended the regular Ontwa Township Board meeting April 14 to air their displeasure. They plan to attend the regular board meeting Monday, May 12, as well, to keep the pressure up.

"We're still opposed. We're still working it until that option is taken off the table," Cyndy Herms, a leader in Save Cobus Creek and a homeowner along the creek, said Friday. The aim of the group and a parallel organization in Ontwa Township, Save Our Resources and Environment, or SORE, is to prevent any sort of discharge into Cobus Creek.

'TECHNICAL REVIEW STAGE'

Bitondo said the response from the foes, notable in part because the formal comment period hasn't yet started, has been via emails and phone calls, mostly. "I don't think I've gotten anything in support of it," he said.

As is, MDEQ is reviewing Ontwa Township's request for a discharge permit, required before the treatment plant can be built. Michigan officials sought additional info on the plans, received it and now are in the "technical review stage," according to Bitondo.

Next would come formulation of a draft discharge permit, review of the document by Ontwa Township and its representatives and, then, the formal public comment period. June would be the earliest the period would start, according to Bitondo.

As for the comments already received, Bitondo, an environmental quality analyst with MDEQ, said they're being reviewed. Some, though, simply express opposition to the plans, which aren't of much use to MDEQ.

"They need to tell me why the permit doesn't meet rules and regulations," said Bitondo, who is based in Lansing, Mich., and spoke by phone.

The Ontwa Township plans came up at a meeting Wednesday of the Elkhart Board of Public Works.

Currently, Ontwa Township sends untreated wastewater to the treatment facility here to be processed, and the presence of a corrosive substance originating in Ontwa Township damaged the network the two entities share in 2011. The city levied a second fine against Ontwa Township stemming from the situation, and Arvis Dawson, a member of the Elkhart board, used the opportunity to scold the township.

The continuing issue "doesn't help their case" for the treatment plant plans, said Dawson.

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




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