TRAVERSE CITY — A state official said "political pressure" nudged state regulators into prematurely allowing a splash pad to open at Clinch Park, a sparkling new feature that subsequently rained water contaminated with human waste on a half-dozen children.
Paul Sisson, an environmental engineering specialist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, gave the city permission to open the splash pad on June 27 without a construction permit or state license to operate.
A sewage back-up on Sunday pushed raw sewage into the 2,000-gallon reservoir that feeds the splash pad, rain arc, and mister, primary features of the $360,000 waterscape named after former Michigan Gov. William G. Milliken.
"We were getting some pressure from our front office," Sisson said. "It was political pressure. We were told to see what we could do. Nobody checked with us to get a permit, so we are just playing catch-up," Sisson said.
City planner Russ Soyring acknowledged late Tuesday the city also failed to obtain electrical and mechanical permits from Grand Traverse County for the water feature.
The splash pad has an overflow drain that connects to the city's sanitary sewer in case of heavy rains. A sewer pump station at the Open Space failed over the weekend, and sewage backed up and flowed into the 2,000-gallon water reservoir that feeds the park's fountains.
The sewage back-up was discovered Sunday morning, shortly after the splash pad was turned on at 10 a.m. City officials estimated that five or six children used the splash pad that morning.
The waterscape is considered a public swimming pool because the water recirculates and is filtered. Sisson said the normal process, similar to any building project, is to submit plans to obtain a construction permit before starting construction. State officials would then review plans, and Sisson said they likely would have questioned the waterscape's drainage feature that led to the contamination.
Splash pad tanks typically are engineered to overflow into a storm sewer, he said.
Brett Davis, a landscape architect for park designer Hamilton Anderson Associates, said they chose not to link the overflow system to the storm drains because they didn't want chlorinated water to flow into Grand Traverse Bay.
Sisson said his office might have questioned linking the overflow to the sanitary sewer without any check valves to protect the system in case of a sewer backup.
“Yeah, we might have caught it,” Sisson said.
Soyring said it was the obligation of contractor Hallmark Construction Inc. to obtain necessary permits.
Hallmark officials in turn pointed to Hamilton Anderson as the party responsible to obtain splash pad permits.
Sisson said his office was in the process of reviewing newly received design plans when they told city officials it was OK to turn on the water feature in time for the National Cherry Festival opener.
“It’s really the political process pushing this more than public health,” Sisson said. "But I don't know who is pushing."
Sisson said he asked the Grand Traverse County Health Department to check out the waterscape to make sure the filter system worked before it was turned on. He said they also discovered other problems.
Decorative metal drain grates have sharp edges and the city didn't have anyone qualified to operate a public pool that could determine if the filter system worked properly.
“You don’t simply turn this on and walk away,” Sisson said. “They take a lot of work.”
Makayla Vitous, Traverse City's interim city manager, said she wasn't involved in the project and would not comment on the waterscape's lack of permitting.
Soyring said time was a factor in most park construction decisions.
“We put a deadline to have a ribbon-cutting and we wanted the park finished,” Soyring said. “I feel it was rushed, they could have used another couple of weeks to finish up the park.”
Soyring said the city hopes to reopen the splash pad yet this week, but it won't happen until all permits are in hand.