Martz's mission

Jun 21, 2000 at 12:00 am
When the Metro Times sat down with activist Doug Martz last week, it was, he said, exactly six years and one day since the moment his life took a dramatic turn. Able to make all the money he wanted building homes, and happy spending his free time fishing out on Lake St. Clair, he never paid much mind to things political. He and his wife owned a fine home he’d built one block from the entrance to Metro Beach in Harrison Township. With the lake just a few hundred yards from his front door and a pleasant canal out back, life couldn’t have been much better.

That all changed on June 13, 1994, when 1 billion gallons of sewage came flooding down the Clinton River. Martz, out on a job, witnessed it all. "I happened to be in the wrong place at the right time," he laughs. Soon afterward, Lake St. Clair went into crisis. "I say the lake puked," explains Martz. "It was the lake’s way of telling us it couldn’t take it anymore."

From that point on, a guy who had previously been an environmental Darth Vader came over from the dark side to make cleaning up Lake St. Clair the focal point of his life.

He started by helping found a group called Sludgebusters, going around the state in a ‘72 Cadillac, with a toilet attached to the roof and plungers on the fenders. His activism eventually caught the attention of public officials, who appointed him chairman of the newly formed Macomb County Water Quality Board.

More recently, he teamed up with Robert Kennedy Jr.’s Water Keeper Alliance to open a chapter of the nonprofit organization, called the Channel Keeper, which claims as its territory waterways and their tributaries between Lake Huron and Lake Erie.

When it came time to take his photo for this interview, Martz, now 51 and pretty much out of the homebuilding business and volunteering almost all of his time to preserving the lake, insisted that his niece and nephew, Jordan and Lincoln Okaji, be included in the picture.

"When I first started this," explains Martz, "It was to protect my property values. Now, I do it for my niece and nephew, and kids like them. I told them that, by the time I die, they will be able to swim in Lake St. Clair and not have to worry. I intend to keep that promise."

Metro Times: Let’s start with an update of what’s been going on regarding Lake St. Clair. What’s been happening recently?

Doug Martz: As far as sewage discharges, there are three cities that have turned themselves in during the last four months – Clinton Township, Fraser and Center Line – for (having illegal) sanitary sewer overflow pumps. Some of them have been in there since 1960. They were illegal when they were put in and they are still illegal. You’re not supposed to do that. Back then, people were more worried about flooding basements than they were about the water quality of the rivers and streams that ran through their community. But all that water really ends up in Lake St. Clair, which ends up being the drinking water for 4 1/2 million people. The mind-set in the past was that dilution is the solution to pollution. Well, as you see, that doesn’t work anymore. There’s too much pollution. In the last two months, we’ve had a couple of big rainstorms. As a result, the last number I heard was 850 million gallons has been dumped – I call it dumped, they call it discharged – some of it raw, some of it combined sewer overflow treated with chlorine. And that’s just in Macomb County.

MT: Is that why we’ve been seeing these recent beach closings?

Martz: Right. A week before Memorial Day, the counts at Metro Beach, Memorial Park and Blossom Heath, the three public beaches, were all around 2,400 (colonies per 100 milliliters). That’s probably the earliest we’ve had numbers that high. Since then, the numbers have all dropped, except for Blossom Heath, which was closed last week with counts of 538. As of yesterday, the new report is that Blossom Heath which is at 10 Mile and Jefferson, had counts of 2,400. And the legal limit is 130.

MT: Do the closings usually start this soon in the year?

Martz: It’s pretty early. Normally the beach closings don’t start until around the Fourth of July. So we’re kind of early. But we’ve had a lot of rain this spring.

MT: So, despite all the attention that’s been paid to this situation the past couple of years, things aren’t getting better?

Martz: No, they aren’t. The last two years people have been saying, "Oh, things are better." But they weren’t better. The reason things seemed better is because we were in drought conditions. There wasn’t a lot of rain.

MT: Do you get the sense that there is public outrage, that people are getting upset that they can’t go to the beach because there is human feces contaminating the water?

Martz: People are apathetic. I have a 6-year-old nephew and he calls me his best buddy in the whole world. I will not let him swim in Lake St. Clair. If I want to take him swimming in an open body of water, I go north of Port Huron. I just don’t trust it here. One problem we have is the testing done by the Health Department – and I can’t blame them, because so far we don’t have the technology – the lag time in testing can be anywhere from 20 to 28 hours. So, by the time they get the results, people can literally be swimming in crap. As far as I’m concerned it’s World War I technology. We’re searching all over the place for a fast test. My fear is that, after a rainstorm, people could be swimming in high E. coli levels and not know it. I don’t think that should be happening. Why aren’t people coming forward? (A look of complete bewilderment crosses his face, and his hands fly up in exasperation.) I don’t know.

My big fear is that something like Walkerton (an Ontario, Canada, town where at least seven people have died and about 2,000 have been sickened by tainted water) could happen here.

I hope it doesn’t come to that before people wake up. I feel like Paul Revere.

MT: This all sounds very personal.

Martz: Here in this canal, the last two summers, every time Metro (Beach) closed, the sewage blew in here. My whole back yard turned septic. I couldn’t even go in my back yard, the stench was so bad. I know its not fixed. I’ve lived here 20 years and I’ve never gotten in this canal what I’ve gotten the last two years. My whole objective here is to try and get people to wake up. ... I’m always looking for a new vehicle to bring attention to this, which is why we brought Bobby Kennedy Jr. here. I have to build an army, and that’s what I’m trying to do.

MT: Why don’t you tell us about the Channel Keeper?

Martz: Bobby Kennedy Jr. and the River Keeper group had started on the Hudson River and were starting to fan out across the whole country. They had won a big lawsuit against General Electric and that gave them the finances to expand this group nationally. In fact, it’s international now. We met with them in January of last year at Wayne State, and we sold them on the idea that we were worthy to have a chapter of his group here. In April, they sent us a letter saying that we were accepted into the group.

MT: Do you have any targets in your sights?

Martz: Because most of this grassroots effort has come out of Macomb County, we decided that we’d first go after the most polluted part of Macomb County, which is the Bear Creek drain, (which includes) Warren and Center Line. So we filed a 60-day notice, and it is past the 60 days. We’ve had five meetings with that drain board and it looks like so far that they’re going to do what we want them to do. What we want is a plan of action showing how they are going to fix the problem. This drain has E. coli counts of 30,000 most of the time, and the legal level in storm water discharge is 130, not 30,000.

MT: It seems like the big difference between what you’re facing here in Macomb County, say, compared to something like the Rouge River, is that there the problem is industrial contaminants.

Martz: Right. Here in Macomb County, the main problem is sewage. Cities are putting development on top of development with not enough infrastructure to handle what they are doing. So what they’ve basically done is try to put 10 pounds of crap in a 1-pound bag, and every time it rains the bag blows open and the crap squirts out everywhere. That’s what’s going on here.

MT: So you know what you need to do to fix it, which is sewage treatment.

Martz: Right. It is a question of money. The big problem is you come down on Warren and Center Line, all these cities, and try to force them to spend more money, officials there say, "My God, the taxpayers will rebel." But it’s the right thing to do. Our kids and grandkids don’t stand a chance unless we start now. We have to deal with it.

MT: Would you say development is being subsidized by not making it pay for sewage treatment that’s needed?

Martz: I’m not against development. You have to remember, I was a builder. I don’t want to take this county and put it in a recession. But, in the same instance, when we don’t have the road infrastructure, when we don’t have the sanitary sewer, when you don’t have the schools, and you have this mass exodus of people coming here, eventually we’re going to have to pay for it. That’s where were at. The bill has come due, and we have to fix this problem.

MT: Is part of your frustration that you’re fighting this huge battle just to get government entities to adhere to the law?

Martz: That’s it in a nutshell. I don’t want any more laws. We have all the laws we need. We need the laws that are here enforced. A good example is, if I took my boat out and dumped three gallons from my Porta-Potty in that lake, the fine is $10,000 if I get caught. But Clinton Township dumped 230,000,000 gallons of raw sewage – the same as would be in my Porta-Potty or worse – for 20 years and got fined $250,000. They could have been fined $25,000 a day from 1980 to date, times nine, because that’s how many pumps they have. You’ve got double standards. When you fine Clinton Township, who are you fining? You aren’t fining the city officials. You are fining the public again. There is no responsible party. This can’t be allowed to go on. My water quality board put out a notice to every city in Macomb County that we wanted them to come forward by June 1. Well, DEQ took our idea and put out the same type of notice statewide. If they don’t come forward, I would hold the township officials responsible. I would fine them $25,000 a day. If these city officials, and the engineering departments in all these cities, didn’t take the time to look into this and blow this off, and they get caught in the future, I think there should be prosecution of city officials.

MT: Criminal prosecutions?

Martz: Damn right. Because they didn’t go out and take care of us, and I don’t want any more burden on the public. I want the burden on them. Somebody has to be responsible, and always it’s us, and I don’t like it. What River Keeper is going to do in the future is this: If we find out you have a problem, I’ll go to them first. If they throw me out of their office, then I’ll come back with a club.

MT: By club you mean a lawsuit?

Martz: That’s right. You can deal nice, but if you want to play hardball, I’m not afraid to play hardball. This is my lake. They’ve moved me into a toilet, and I’m not happy with living in a toilet.

For more information about the St. Clair Channel Keeper, call 810-791-7379 or surf to Channel Keeper's Web site.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]