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141810 - DEQ v Worth Twp

Department of Environmental Quality and Director of the Department of Environmental Quality,
Alan F. Hoffman
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals)
(Ingham – Draganchuk, J.)
Township of Worth,
Michael G. Woodworth


​Worth Township, located in Sanilac County along the shores of Lake Huron, does not operate a public sanitary-sewerage system; local residences and businesses rely on private septic systems for waste disposal. Some of these septic systems located along a five-mile strip of shoreline are failing, and effluent is being discharged into Lake Huron. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality encouraged the township to install a public sanitary-sewerage system, but the township concluded that such a project was not financially feasible. The department and its director sued the township, arguing that, under the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, the township was responsible for the discharge and should be compelled to correct the situation. The act states in part that “[t]he discharge of any raw sewage of human origin, directly or indirectly, into the waters of this state shall be considered prima facie evidence of a violation of this part by the municipality in which the discharge originated unless the discharge is permitted by an order or rule of the department.” MCL 324.3109(2). The township argued that it could not be held liable for the discharge of sewage from privately owned septic tanks. The trial court disagreed and ruled in the department’s favor, setting a time frame for the township to design, begin construction on, and begin operating a sewerage system. The order also imposed a $60,000 fine and awarded attorney fees to the department.

The township appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reversed in a split published opinion and remanded the case to the trial court for a ruling in the township’s favor. A majority of the Court of Appeals held that MCL 324.3109(2) did not impose liability on the township; rather, the statute merely created a presumption that the township was the source of the discharge, the majority said. The majority added that Worth Township could advance a “particularly compelling argument that it was not the source of the violation: it does not operate a sanitary-sewerage system that could be the source of the discharge.” Because the township was not responsible for the discharge, it was not subject to the statutory remedies for a discharge, the majority reasoned.

The dissenting Court of Appeals judge would have affirmed the trial court’s ruling. He concluded that MCL 324.3109(2) imposes liability on a municipality, including a township, for any discharge of raw sewage of human origin into the waters of the state, if the discharge occurred within the municipality’s borders. The department appeals.