Traverse City Record-Eagle


November 3, 2013

Electrocution was chief concern with splash pad


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.

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