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Ontwa Township faces fourth penalty in ongoing sewer flap; Elkhart officials ponder the possibility of suing

The problems stem from the presence of a corrosive substance coming from Ontwa Township in the system it shares with Elkhart.

(Dan Spalding/The Elkhart Truth)
Posted on June 3, 2014 at 4:30 p.m.

ELKHART — Ontwa Township, Mich., faces a fourth penalty in connection with the presence of a corrosive substance in the sewer network it shares with Elkhart.

And Elkhart officials have broached the notion of suing the Michigan locale stemming from the ongoing problems, which date to late 2011.

The Elkhart Board of Public Works took up the sticky issue again Tuesday, June 3. The body fell short of moving to sue, instead issuing an order for Ontwa Township to spell out its plans to address the apparent failure to comply with an agreement with the city on the matter. Alternatively, township officials may seek a hearing if they dispute the charges.

Ontwa Township, across the state line from Elkhart County, operates a sewer collection system. It has an accord with Elkhart to send the accumulated wastewater here via a shared network so it can be processed at the city's treatment plant.

Hydrogen sulfide can form in wastewater, and the substance appeared in the Elkhart-Ontwa Township system in late December 2011, causing a collapse. A July 2013 accord called on Ontwa Township to resolve the problem, implementing fixes to reduce hydrogen sulfide levels to five parts per million or less of samples tested.

Subsequent testing has shown continuing high levels of hydrogen sulfide, though, and the city has issued fines of $11,750 and $10,000 to Ontwa Township, in addition to an earlier $1,000 penalty, according to Tuesday’s order. The order further noted that a fourth violation notice against Ontwa Township was issued May 28 stemming from more recent testing showing elevated hydrogen sulfide levels.

Maggie Marnocha, an attorney for the Elkhart Public Works and Utilities Department, said orders like the one issued Tuesday are the final administrative measure the city can take in cases like the dispute with Ontwa Township. Township officials will have to around June 19 to respond.

The next step, if the issue continues and the city wants to take further action, would be a lawsuit, she said.

Officials didn’t call for a lawsuit, but they pondered the possibility of at least putting the question on a future meeting agenda. Andrew Carter, a board of works member, suggested pinning down the cost to Elkhart of dealing with the hydrogen sulfide issue so financial figures are available to include in a lawsuit, if it gets to that.

Meanwhile, Mike Machlan, president of the board, called on utility department staffers to step up the testing of the Ontwa Township network to once a week.

Despite the continued exasperation by Elkhart officials, some testing in Ontwa Township has shown low levels of hydrogen sulfide at times, indicating township officials are able to control the substance, though not always on a consistent basis.

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




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