Nov. 11 2015 12:32 AM

City questions scope of Red Cedar pollution abatement project

Pat Lindemann, the Ingham County drain commissioner, readily shows a photo on his cellphone of two unsightly sewer lines on the banks of the Red Cedar River. A plume of cloudy substance — pollution — can be seen trailing out from one of the outlets.

He wants that to end. But he acknowledges that it’s going to cost taxpayers money and doesn’t know how much.

It’s the cost — millions of dollars — that has the Bernero administration nervous as it continues to negotiate the Red Cedar Renaissance project in the former Red Cedar Golf Course off Michigan Avenue near Frandor. The city outlined its concern in a Nov. 2 letter sent by Chief Operating Officer Chad Gamble to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Lindemann said his mandate is to ensure that the Red Cedar watershed area off Michigan Avenue is designed right. But Lansing has told state regulators it believes Lindemann’s plan is excessive and “should and could be reduced.”

“Essentially what they are saying is that I will clean the water too much,” Lindemann said regarding the city’s letter. “How do you clean the water too much?”

Lindemann said the permit he is seeking for the Red Cedar repair meets the state standard for what is known as a "first flush." That means being able to handle and clean the first inch of rain from a storm event.

He said he is unclear where Gamble got the idea that his approach is excessive, since he still has not created a plan, let alone a design.

“The complaints are not about the permits — they are posturing about the money,” Lindemann said.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero said this week that the city had substantive issues with the plan, but he did not elaborate on what those issues were.

“We’re trying to value-engineer this thing to get the most bang for the buck for taxpayers,” Bernero said. “In the end, taxpayers are going to have to pay for this.”

The city’s concerns outlined in its letter to MDEQ were part of the public comment period on the permits needed to improve the entire drain system in the region. The revamped drain will be a key part of the infrastructure investment needed for the hundreds of millions of dollars of new developments and investments in the former Red Cedar Golf Course.

Lindemann said he needs the permits, which cover legal permission to work in areas like wetlands, inland lakes and rivers, endangered species and floodplains, in order to complete designs and finalize the scope of the project. Obtaining the necessary permits ensures that the project meets federal and state regulations, and prevents him from being forced to redesign the project multiple times. He said he plans to complete the permit applications within 30 days.

The city endorses cleaner water, but it is worried about overreach by the drain commissioner.

“We are concerned about the magnitude of the proposed project facilities and the associated impacts to the affected wetlands,” wrote Gamble in his letter to MDEQ. In the letter, Gamble argued that what the application indicates is “beyond what is necessary to meet DEQ’s Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) Program requirements or for goals related to achievement of water quality standards.”

Lindemann said none of the city’s concerns about the project had been expressed to him. Without a plan and a design, Lindemann said he’s not sure that he will surpass the requirements.

The final bill for the drain improvement would be assessed based on how much each area would be contributing to the run-off to be processed by the drain system. Each municipal government could shoulder the cost burden, or assess it to property owners. But those costs are up in the air.

“They’re nervous about the cost, because we don’t know what it is going to be,” Lindemann said of the city. “I’m nervous about the cost because I don’t know what it is going to be. But this is early in the process.”

He hopes to unveil designs for the drain system in the first quarter of 2016.

The drain work is considered essential in improving the conditions of the Red Cedar and drain systems in that area and has been cited as a key piece of the infrastructure work necessary to attract the proposed Red Cedar Renaissance project, which would include hotels, retail space and apartments. Lindemann said the drain work will move forward whether the Renaissance project does or not. The two, he said, don't rely on each other to proceed. But they are mutually beneficial, with the drain work addressing water issues and potential pollution, and the development benefitting from park-like infrastructures that also serve a public good in cleaning runoff water.

Lindemann has previously achieved great cost savings by using natural processes to filter out pollution. The price tag for the Tollgate Project, if he had run traditional underground pipe and moved the water from the area, would have been about $24 million. It ultimately cost just about $6.5 million.

The former Red Cedar Golf Course was built on a wetland, and as a result, Lindemann said he wants to restore about 6 acres of the area to original wetlands.

“This project clearly presents an opportunity to improve the quality of life and flood management for Lansing’s citizenry while protecting precious wetland resources,” Lindemann wrote to MDEQ officials Friday in a letter responding to the concerns from the city.