Jan 18, 2016
In the late 1960s, the state made a decision to expand the Flint area water system. A new water intake tunnel was built on southern Lake Huron, just north of the city of Port Huron, Michigan.
The water in this area is some of the cleanest in the world. In fact, it was stated at that time, the water was so clean it did not need to be treated. (It is treated anyway, supposedly to comply with the law.)
Construction began in 1968. This water intake tunnel had to be bored out – six miles long – under Lake Huron. The work building the tunnel was dangerous. Two workers were killed in accidents early in the building of the tunnel. As it turned out, there were other concerns. Drilling into shale rock as they were doing is known to cause methane gas buildup. In this project, methane gas had been detected on previous occasions.
On Saturday, December 11, 1971, about three years after construction began, an explosion due to a build-up of methane gas occurred during the drilling of a vent shaft. There were 43 workers in the tunnel at the time of the explosion and 22 workers died.
Of those who survived, 10 of the workers escaped on their own, the rest had to be rescued. By some accounts it was the worst industrial accident ever in the history of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. One of the rescuers stated, “It was unbelievable what it (the explosion) did to the tunnel, let alone to the bodies (of the workers in the tunnel.)”
The explosion was later described as what happens inside a gun barrel. Metal, concrete, anything in the tunnel became a deadly projectile. The blast was so powerful that those killed in the six-mile tunnel were more than four and a half miles from the actual area of the explosion!
When the tunnel construction workers who were not working that afternoon heard what happened they rushed to the area to try and rescue their co-workers. When the police blocked the area roads, they went around the barricades and entered the tunnel anyway, but to no avail. The methane gas was still so dangerous it was impossible to save those who were trapped.
A former safety inspector at the tunnel testified that his superiors ignored safety so as to stay on schedule.
This water tunnel was later completed, and the clean Lake Huron water started to flow in 1973. This water was treated by the Detroit Water Dept. and supplied Flint and other areas with water.
The water tunnel that cost workers their lives has never been used to its full capacity.