Jackson sewage treatment plant could be badly affected by climate change

JACKSON, Michigan — A report from a federal monitoring agency shows that 29 chemical sites in Michigan could be severely impacted by climate change. One such site is in Jackson.

The Jackson Wastewater Treatment Plant is in a flood zone as it sits next to the Grand River.

Climate change is making natural hazards more frequent and more intense, according to Richard Rood, professor of climate change at the University of Michigan.

According to a federal report last month, the Government Accountability Office found that the Environmental Protection Agency was not systematically monitoring these facilities.

The US Government Accountability Office’s director of natural resources environment, J. Alfredo Gomez, said facilities could have better information and guidance on how to incorporate these risks into risk management programs.

“So we made recommendations to the Environmental Protection Agency that they do a better job there of training their inspectors to provide this kind of information,” Rood said.

Joe Gebhardt, WSYM, 2022

A risk management program is in place at every facility that stores, uses or handles hazardous chemicals in sufficiently high quantities, according to the Government Accountability Office.

“They identify, for example, the risks they may face in the event of an accidental release and those risks may be like equipment failure, they may be human error, but they may also come from natural disasters. For example, if you are going to have a flood, what will happen? Gomez said.

To prevent a facility like a sewage treatment plant from bearing the brunt of a natural disaster, the federal watchdog group wants such facilities to ensure they are prepared for worst-case scenarios.

“In Jackson’s case, as part of their risk management program, they would identify those risks,” Gomez said. “They would identify what those safeguards are. They are also required to work with local emergency responders so that in the event of an accidental release, those responders are aware of the chemicals that may be released and the protective measures in place as well.

City officials believe the structure of its plant would help it withstand a major flood.

“We’re in a good position to not impact this facility,” city spokesman Aaron Dimick said.

“It’s largely because our mechanics are submerged, so if there was some kind of flooding, we don’t think it would have too much of an impact,” he continued. “Over the years we have reduced the amount of chemicals we use.”

Jackson Wastewater Treatment Plant

Joe Gebhardt, WSYM, 2022

He says if floodwaters rose around the facility and escaped, it would take a large critical failure.

“So even though there are potential risks in a facility like this that there is flooding, we believe our mechanicals are submerged and the chemicals are down in an area that wouldn’t leak. not and would not cause a major disaster,” he said.

Even so, Rood says cities need to start looking at their vulnerabilities.

“We saw the lake flood. We’ve seen the dams break, so I think in the Michigan area the first obvious place to look is how resilient are you? ” he said. “What is your protection against excess water and flooding? I think it’s also interesting to think about the effects of more water on groundwater, because Michigan is a state that has a lot of chemical contaminants and groundwater issues.

The facility was originally built in the 1930s, with different parts of the complex being built at different times. Rood thinks facilities across the United States should keep in mind that their facilities may have been built in a different climate than today.

“If you look at the last 30 years versus the previous 30 years, you’ve seen the fastest climate changes we’ve seen in 1,000 years, really a bit more than that,” he said. he declares. “They have to design according to different criteria. One of the things I say in class is that you have to move away from the idea of ​​protecting and persisting to start thinking about how you live in concert with this changing climate. It’s very difficult for designers at this point to think that the environmental conditions will actually actively change over the lifetime of this plant.”

The National Flood Risk Layer identifies the areas most at risk of flooding, those with an annual flood risk of at least 1%. In some locations, the National Flood Hazard Layer also identifies areas with an annual flood hazard of 0.2% or greater, which FEMA considers moderate flood hazard.


Abigail Pumphrey

Flood photo, Abigail Pumphrey

The town of Jackson did not experience a major catastrophic flood from the Grand River. Over the past 10 years, a sewage treatment plant berm has been installed to add additional protection from the Grand River.

“We had a flood in 2005, but it was because of heavy rain. It’s not because the Grand River got bigger. Often when we see flooding from the Grand River it is in the downtown area or on the east side of town. As far as we are concerned, the people who work here at the plant have never seen any problems with flooding from the river. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen, it’s a major waterway,” Dimick said.

The city was unaware they were listed on this report, but authorities are preparing for any catastrophic flooding that may occur.

“We’re doing a topographic survey right now and hopefully it’ll be finished in the next two to three months and it’s actually a really good time because we want to make sure we’ve got everything ready” , said Dimick. “We’re going to put billions of dollars in public investment here in the sewage treatment plant, so we want to make sure we understand all the risks.”

As for climate change, Rood says changes in Michigan’s climate are already visible. The warming of the Great Lakes reduces the ice cover, which influences winter precipitation in terms of both the amount and the form of precipitation.

“We have seen the winter period get shorter. There was less snow. We’ve also seen mostly in the last five or six years, but really in the last 12 to 15 years it seems to have almost accelerated the last five or six extreme precipitation events and an extreme or record amount of precipitation.

Who will continue. Rood predicts that temperatures will rise for at least the next 10 to 30 years before they have a chance to stabilize.

“Linked to this, there will be an increase in extreme rainfall. When it’s wet, it will probably be very wet. When it is dry, because it will be warmer, you will have a greater threat of drought,” he said.

To see the full report, click here.

Here is an interactive map to see which facilities were identified in the report.


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