Decision welcomed

MARQUETTE – Local officials expressed thanks and hope in the wake of Gov. Rick Snyder declaring a “state of emergency” for Marquette County, sending state resources to the area to aid in combating this winter’s ongoing deep freeze problems.

“It’s great news for Marquette County and the Upper Peninsula, with a lot more potential for damage over the next four to six weeks,” Marquette County Board Chairman Gerald Corkin said.

In addition, state Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, introduced a bill Thursday that would provide a $10 million appropriations supplement for counties in the Upper Peninsula that have issued local states of emergencies. The money would help communities dealing with strained budgets because of this winter’s problems.

The money would be appropriated to the Michigan State Police and counties and municipalities could apply for grants. Reimbursement would be limited to public damage related to the prolonged freeze.

“I applaud the U.P.’s local municipalities for going above and beyond the call of duty to keep their residents safe. These communities have done everything they can to keep water running, and have gone far over their budgets in the process,” Dianda said. “This bill would give back to those communities to ensure they have enough money to continue operating once this problem has passed.”

This winter, frost levels reached depths of more than eight feet in several areas, with 79 consecutive days with high temperatures below freezing recorded. Costs have skyrocketed to more than $1.7 million in Marquette County and $6.7 million across the U.P. There have been roughly 50 water main breaks countywide with nearly 6,000 water customers under let-run orders and fire hydrants frozen in many places. More water pipes broke Thursday, with breakages reported on Washington Street in downtown Marquette and a leak at Sawyer International Airport affected water service to the airport terminal and may have undermined part of the parking lot.

Corkin thanked Snyder for being sensitive to the severe damages that have occurred.

Snyder on Thursday directed the Michigan State Police Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division to “coordinate and maximize all state efforts, andcall upon all state departments to utilize resources at their avail to assist in the emergency area pursuant to the Michigan Emergency Management Plan.”

Dave Nyberg, director of Snyder’s northern Michigan office in Marquette, said the declaration will expand the ability for the state to provide resources to assist with public safety and emergency response and will permit local units of government to apply for reimbursement for qualified expenses related to the response efforts.

State emergency officials said: “The goal of a state declaration is not to make individuals, businesses or government entities whole again, but to restore a community to a level that meets health and safety considerations.”

State Rep. John Kivela, D-Marquette, said the entire U.P. legislative delegation has been working with Marquette County officials and the governor for several months to get this state of emergency declared, and he’s thankful the governor understands the need.

“Many communities are struggling to maintain necessary services despite the utilization of mandated ‘let water run’ orders, private contracts to assist in thawing water mains and the reallocation of public works staffing,” Kivela said. “While I applaud the work of local municipalities in keeping their communities up and running, it is without a doubt that the residents of Marquette County need help from the state.

“The governor’s declaration of an emergency situation in Marquette County will make resources available to restore water service to countless homes and businesses that have been forced to go without water for too long.”

State Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, praised the work crews.

“My greatest debt of gratitude is to the real heroes of this crisis – the local men and women who have been working yearly around the clock for months on end in absolutely brutal conditions to help their communities cope with this crisis,” Casperson said.

Numerous local officials expressed thanks for the declaration, while continuing to focus on the ongoing battle.

“There is still much work ahead, but this is an excellent step in moving forward,” County Administrator Scott Erbisch said.

Marquette Mayor Robert Niemi agreed, saying the “critical recognition” was “an action that portends light at the end of this winter tunnel.”

“This is great news and a very positive first step for all impacted counties and communities in Marquette County,” Niemi said. “We deeply appreciate the efforts of Governor Snyder, Senator Casperson, Representative Kivela, our other U.P. legislators, and our neighbors throughout the area who advocated for this critical response.”

Negaunee City Manager Jeff Thornton stressed the declaration was only the first of several hurdles to be overcome.

“The (state) resources come with a price,” he said, adding that to bring the Michigan National Guard in to assist with problems would cost the county and its municipalities more than it would to hire local contractors, as has been done thus far.

“Obviously I think it’s great news,” Jon Kangas, superintendent of the Ishpeming Department of Public Works, said of the declaration. “(But) this isn’t the answer to all of the problems we have. It doesn’t guarantee that we get the financial assistance we need, which is really where we’re at.”

Kangas estimated local contractor A. Lindberg & Sons will have to continue to with DPW crews for at least the next month – especially as the city discovers more broken water and sewer mains as the ground thaws. Ishpeming has so far spent nearly $200,000 in contracting Lindberg’s crews.

However, Kangas said there will still be significant resources the emergency declaration can provide, especially if the number of broken water mains means having to shut down the Negaunee-Ishpeming Water Authority’s treatment plant, which supplies the water to both cities.

“It may be where we have to shut the entire cities’ water supply off and then everyone’s on bottled water. And really with the state of emergency, I would say that would be the No. 1 biggest impact I could see they could assist us with, short term,” Kangas said. “Other communities have different needs beyond what Ishpeming needs, but we know that we have an underground sprinkler system ready to go off.”

Several officials, representing various area jurisdictions and constituencies, met privately Monday with state police in Negaunee Township, pleading their case for emergency relief, given the worsening situation.

Snyder made his declaration Thursday morning.

Nyberg said Snyder’s declaration presents the opportunity for a presidential disaster declaration should per capita damage thresholds be met. To meet a federal threshold for relief, Michigan would have to incur a total of at least $13.7 million in costs.

Corkin said he believes that bar will be reached.

“I think in the next four to six weeks, we’ll certainly surpass that,” Corkin said.

Casperson said: “We are now exploring all available options to help all communities throughout the U.P. cope with the tremendous financial impact that this crisis has caused to their budgets, including a supplemental appropriation and how we can establish a presidential declaration for the region, which would bring with it financial assistance.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, said: “I will continue to work with state and local officials and stand ready to assist, should federal help be needed.”

The last time a winter freeze state of emergency was declared by the governor for Marquette County was Feb. 23, 1994. That declaration was later followed up by a presidential declaration on May 10. At that time, 10 Michigan counties were affected, eight in the U.P. and two in the northern Lower Peninsula. State costs were estimated at $3.8 million. This winter, eight U.P. counties have declared emergencies.

Long-term, Kangas said Snyder’s declaration is crucial because it could possibly provide resources to reduce the potential for these kinds of problems occurring in future winters. Such efforts include replacing old cast-iron mains with pipes made of the less-brittle ductile iron, burying mains – ideally, seven or eight feet in the ground – and insulating pipes and mains with a rigid, extruded polystyrene material to help prevent their freezing.

Kangas said Ishpeming is already working on a plan to replace all of its cast-iron mains with ductile iron, but stressed that it would be at least a couple years before such work could begin and that it will be expensive. He estimated the cost of replacing the city’s old pipes and mains at about $10 million.

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401. His email address is zjay@miningjournal.net.