Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 3, 2013

Electrocution was chief concern with splash pad

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — City officials feared much more than spewed sewage as they scrambled to sort out problems with their sparkling new splash pad days after Clinch Park's ballyhooed June reopening:

Their sudden realization that contractors failed to obtain a host of required permits -- most significantly an electrical permit for the entire park -- raised concerns that someone could be electrocuted in or around the new splash pad water attraction.

Electrocution wasn't a far-fetched notion; in June 2011 a Mancelona teen died of electrocution and drowning while swimming in the city's Clinch Park Marina, and the city remains embroiled in a wrongful death lawsuit.

Ultimately, problems that besieged the splash pad weren't tied to electrical systems failings. Instead, the water feature rained sewage-tainted water on unsuspecting children, the ugliest and most public failing rooted in a series of questionable decisions and shoddy workmanship.

Details of numerous problems, including contractors' failure to obtain myriad permits prior to Clinch Park's June 25 reopening, emerged from a city report ordered by Traverse City Mayor Michael Estes after the splash pad sewage debacle. City commissioners will learn report details during their meeting Monday at 7 p.m. at the Governmental Center.

"To date the commissioners have not had a final report on who was responsible for the failures that led to this public mishap," Estes said.

Host of flaws

The city report and documents obtained by the Record-Eagle from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality through the state Freedom of Information Act shed new light on breakdowns and failings that emerged as city officials scurried to open the new Clinch Park in time for the National Cherry Festival.

The splash pad's open-closed-reopened status that week culminated in a June 30 incident when numerous children were sprayed with sewage-tainted water as they frolicked in the new, $360,000 water feature.

Officials reopened the splash pad June 27 without a required DEQ pool permit. And documents show city officials also failed to obtain necessary permits for a host of other Clinch Park projects.

City officials discovered late on June 28 that the $2.9 million Clinch Park makeover lacked occupancy permits for the tunnel entrance, pavilion and bathrooms. Also lacking was an electrical permit required for the entire park, including the splash pad.

City officials in part blamed their general contractor, Hallmark Construction.

"We were surprised because we had been told verbally by (Hallmark) ... earlier in the week the permits were all set," said Russ Soyring, the city's planner and project manager for the park makeover. "Our concern was focused on the mixture of water and electricity for the splash pad."

Makayla Vitous, at the time the acting city manager, huddled with city department heads on the afternoon of June 28, a Friday, and decided to pull the plug on the splash pad. But the decision came after 5 p.m., Soyring said. City Parks and Recreation Director Lauren Vaughn was out of town and the shut-it-down message never reached splash pad operators.

Splash pad foibles

The lack of an electrical permit only added to city officials' concerns. They'd already discovered by accident on May 31 that the project's design firm, Hamilton Anderson Architects, hadn't applied to the DEQ for a splash pad construction permit.

That meant the splash pad would have to remain dry after the park's June 25 grand reopening.

But things changed shortly after the June 25 ribbon-cutting when state Rep. Wayne Schmidt, of Grand Traverse County, waded into the fray and directly contacted DEQ officials. Schmidt, who did not return numerous calls from the Record-Eagle for comment on his role in splash pad problems, said an unidentified constituent told him the splash pad couldn't remain open because the state hadn't issued a permit.

Schmidt thought he might be able to expedite an inspection, DEQ documents show.

Emails among DEQ staff show Schmidt specifically requested the DEQ give consideration to a short-term fix proposed by Hamilton Anderson in order to reopen the splash pad in time for the National Cherry Festival.

DEQ staffers who handled such permits rejected the Schmidt-Hamilton Anderson proposal as unworkable.

But Sarah Howes, the DEQ's legislative lobbyist, responded with two emails within 20 minutes the morning of June 27 that directed Paul Sisson, the DEQ's senior pool inspector, to speak directly with Brett Davis of Hamilton Anderson regarding the extent of completed construction. Following that discussion Sisson approved splash pad operations without a permit.

Sisson told the Record-Eagle after the sewage-spraying incident that "political pressure" prompted him to grant approval.

The splash pad reopened June 27, complete with an undetected design flaw. Its water storage tank was directly tied to the city's sanitary sewer and did not have a required air gap to prevent sewage backups.

Health department: 19 sickened

The region's signature summer party -- the National Cherry Festival -- kicked off Saturday morning, June 29, and city officials opened splash pad water valves along with it. City officials never followed up their previous, electrocution fear-based decision to keep it closed.

On Sunday morning, June 30 at 10 a.m., city officials again turned on the splash pad. They shut it down about 15 minutes later when they discovered what turned out to be raw sewage flowing through the spray and onto children, according to a report prepared by City Manager Jered Ottenwess.

Ottenwess wrote that four to five children played in the splash pad before it was shut down that morning.

But the Grand Traverse County Health Department subsequently reported 19 people showed symptoms consistent with exposure to raw sewage. Health department officials considered anyone who was exposed to the water on June 29 and June 30 a potential victim because no one knew when the sewage backup began.

Nicole Miller of Buckley said she believes splash pad contamination began before June 29. Her eight-year-old son became violently ill after he played in the splash pad for about three hours on June 27, she said.

She reported his illness to the health department on June 28 and officials tested splash pad water late that afternoon and found it pathogen-free. But documents show health department officials also tested the water on June 27 and discovered it lacked enough chlorine to serve as a disinfectant.

The city opened the splash pad without anyone trained in pool operation. Tom Buss, the county's director of environmental health, said county officials had instructed city employees on how to properly maintain the splash pad water's chlorine and pH levels.

Buss said there is no way to know for sure now, but the water on June 27 could have contained pathogens because the water lacked adequate chlorine levels.

Reopening plans thwarted

Some city officials wanted to reopen the splash pad on July 1, the day after sewage spewed from it, according to DEQ documents.

"I was shocked," Buss said. "We didn't want that."

County health department officials responded with a memo to the DEQ that included a long list of suggested requirements to reopen the splash pad.

The intent was clear: any negative ramifications would fall squarely on the DEQ if the splash pad was reopened without a final permit.

"We couldn't tell them what to do ... but we didn't want it reopened," Buss said.

The DEQ issued a final response later that day. The splash pad would have to go through the regular permitting process. No temporary fixes.

It would take city officials almost two months to gain all required permits. Today, still more work remains to be done.

Soyring said city officials realized they needed outside expert advice as they toiled to to assign splash pad problem costs and responsibility. They are waiting on a cost proposal from Vortex Aquatic Structures International Inc. to recommend solutions and help assign responsibility for the solutions.