Residents on the south side of East Lansing’s Chesterfield Hills neighborhood are fed up with a persistent stench of poop emanating from the sanitary sewer system around the intersection of Michigan Avenue and University Drive.
This problem has gone on for more than 20 years, according to several long-time residents in the area near the Brody complex, but has gotten worse since a major sewer rebuild was undertaken in the area.
Along with making day-to-day life unpleasant, some are concerned about the effect the odor will have on property values. And, as City taxpayers, they’re upset at what they see as the lack of attention and resources directed at fixing this problem.
These frustrations recently led one resident in the area, Roberto Lopez, to email the five members of City Council, City Manager George Lahanas, and Interim Department of Public Works Director Nicole McPherson. Lopez copied around a dozen of his neighbors on the message, sent on Nov. 10, 2021.
“According to residents that have lived in the neighborhood 20-plus years, this has been an ongoing issue that the city has brushed off,” Lopez wrote, in part. “Years ago, some residents actually took matters into their own hands and covered the manholes with various materials. Our hope was that the problem would be resolved with the infrastructure restructure project on Michigan Ave. Unfortunately, the project was completed last year and the smell worsened.”
“[We] would like this issue resolved as it is a health issue, lowers our property values and it is unpleasant to be outdoors,” his message concluded, before noting they were prepared to contact local media about this problem.
ELi spoke with Lopez this week to learn more about this ongoing issue.
“My wife and I joke about — have you ever watched the film Christmas vacation?” Lopez asked, referencing a scene from the film where the Cousin Eddie character pipes sewage from his RV into the storm drain. In terms of the smell, Lopez said, “that’s exactly it.”
Lopez, as he noted in his email, lives with his family about four houses away from the epicenter of the odor. He is an avid gardener and his family likes to use their porch in the summer to eat out — both of which are less enjoyable when the smell of poop grows inescapable.
They are fortunate to not be as close as some of their neighbors, he said, but the relative degrees of sewage odor are not a meaningful distinction. Depending on the season — the summer heat ratchets up the stench — and prevailing wind, the overall stench at his house does vary, Lopez said. He also said it was less of a problem in the winter, but has been worse in recent years.
“And it tends to be worse in the evening,” he said. “And of course there’s no city employees around to smell it.”
This problem, according to Lopez and a handful of neighbors, has gone on for more than two decades and has gotten little attention or action from the City.
The email Lopez sent to Council, Lahanas, and McPherson on Nov. 10 included a thread of emails from September 2020. In that thread, McPherson explained how the City was replacing several manhole castings and covers on University Drive. That did happen, Lopez said, but it led to only minor and temporary reductions of the smell.
Lopez was also hopeful that the sewer work on Michigan Avenue would lessen the stench. It did, briefly, but then it came back as strong as ever.
Throughout this process, Lopez said he repeatedly heard from City engineering staff and contractors that the problem there was something to do with catch basins, and that the City was more interested in applying what he termed “band-aids,” than a comprehensive fix.
Lopez contacted McPherson again, this time on Sept. 8, 2021, saying that the smell was back and asking if City engineering staff could come take a sniff. Lopez got no response. He followed up on Sept. 16 to make sure McPherson had gotten his message. She then replied shortly after to say the City was looking into it.
Lopez heard nothing after that, and thus sent his email on Nov. 10. McPherson sent a more in-depth response the same day.
“As part of the Michigan Avenue Sewer Improvement project, the interceptor that runs through this neighborhood was cured in place pipe (CIPP) lined. The contractor came back at the end of the project and replaced the manhole covers on this interceptor with solid lids to limit the amount of sewer gas exiting the system. In looking closer at this area, the issue now lays with some of the catch basins in the area not being trapped,” McPherson wrote back on Nov. 10.
“This means that some of the sewer gas can escape through the catch basins. This was not part of the Michigan Avenue Sewer Improvement project. Through our investigations, we identified approximately 17 catch basins that are in need of traps and we have repaired the catch basins we could without obtaining outside contractors. The remainder of the catch basins will require more extensive work which may include replacement. This may also include digging up the roadway and will take more time to complete. We will look into possibly adding this project in the spring,” McPherson continued.
In a later email she said a project was being developed to hopefully begin in Spring 2022 to address the catch basins.
Replying to McPhersons’s Nov. 10 email, two nearby residents, Jennifer and Danny Rosa, wrote: “We cannot speak to the cause of the constant unbearable stench, but we have been residents of 232 University for 23 years and this has been a continuous public nuisance that affects our quality of life. We are grateful to Roberto for bringing this to the city’s attention because frankly, we were busy raising 3 kids. Now that they are grown and the stench remains, we intend to be more proactive until this situation is resolved. For the amount of money we pay in taxes each year, in comparison to similar houses in other cities, this situation is unacceptable.”
Lopez also replied, saying that “while I understand that the interceptor line and the combined sewer system on University Drive are different, we are not even on the 5 year plan for replacement according to your presentation. We want this issue to be a top priority this spring as it has been ongoing for over 25 years and unacceptable.”
He continued: “If the city has funds to increase George Lahanas salary, continue to allow him to provide pensions to new employees, and allow developers to run the city government, then it has money to fix our infrastructure issues.”
The City has been struggling with sewer issues for years, but this year has seen a lot of public attention paid as exceptional rainstorms have led to flooding problems. McPherson presented to Council on Tuesday, giving an overview of the City’s sewer infrastructure and history to Council. Read more about that presentation here.
That was followed up with a webinar on Thursday evening, where McPherson gave a similar presentation, but with greater detail, including specifics about the Wastewater Resource Recovery Facility. You can see a recording of that webinar here, and a copy of McPherson’s presentation here.
Make a tax-deductible gift to ELi before Dec. 31 and your gift will be matched! Act today to help keep East Lansing’s independent news coming!