The interceptor tunnels where artist Bridget Quinn noticed an oil spill that led to the discovery of a massive E. coli contamination (all images courtesy the artist)

What, you may ask, do artists really do for society? In the case of artist Bridget Quinn, and her friend Jula Osten, they thwarted a potential public health crisis: Last month, they discovered and alerted authorities about “off-the-charts” E. coli bacteria counts in two locations discovered along the Red Run Drain in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

Quinn made this discovery in the course of her art practice, which centers on the exploration of “marginal” spaces. Since moving to Warren last year, Quinn has struggled to find beauty in what she describes as an “overbuilt” environment, designed as a company town during the peak of white flight out of Detroit. Quinn’s efforts have included collecting and categorizing weeds and invasive species from her backyard and other untended green spaces, as well as trying to track down the creeks and running water in the city, most of which, she discovered, have long been running underground through miles-long tunnels and drainage systems.

A discarded lawn mower in one of Warren’s waterways

“I started this research project, where I was just trying to find a creek near my house,” said Quinn, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “I have been a serial trespasser since I was a kid, but lately I’ve been dedicating my artistic practice to reconnecting myself to the natural world within these sort of marginal spaces.” This process eventually led to the discovery of a small waterway called Bear Creek, along which Quinn took to walking with her dog, Banjo, in an attempt to find the headwaters.

“I was trying to get a feel for what water in Warren was,” said Quinn, “so I borrowed some kayaks — and my friend Jula is also interested in this kind of space, and game for everything.” The pair planned a kayak tour of Warren’s limited above-ground waterways for the day after Thanksgiving.

“Jula and I put our kayaks in [the creek] behind the Taco Bell, across from the Menards,” said Quinn. “We went past the sewage treatment plant, past where Bear Creek, which I had been doing a lot of research on, connects to the Red Run Drain. We ended up at these giant tunnels.”

Jule Osten, exploring the drainage tunnels of Warren with Quinn on the day after Thanksgiving

Another of Quinn’s ongoing projects, Traffic Chorus, involves site-specific improvisational singing, so she and Osten disembarked from their kayaks to do some singing in the interceptor tunnels, which run 22 miles underground from Warren into Detroit.

“We noticed this sheen on the water, so we decided to go check it out,” said Quinn. “The smell was really bad. And I’m familiar with non-point-source pollution, which is, like, oil coming off of the street after the rain, but this seemed like a constant flow.”

The oil sheen noticed by Quinn and Osten — Quinn doesn’t think the oil is related to the E. coli, but was simply the cue that enabled her to notice water contamination.

Quinn called the discovery in to the MDEQ and several other regulatory agencies, as well as the local fire department, who eventually sent someone from the Macomb County Public Works Commission to test the water.

In a statement to the press on Wednesday, Macomb County Public Workers Commissioner Candice Miller said of the test results: “To put it in context, if you have E. coli counts of 300 (per 100 milliliters of water) or more, you’re closing beaches. And what we found at two different spots was 2,400, which is the maximum that the testing will go to. So they were off-the-charts — I’m sure they are much higher than that. That is very dangerous to human contact.”

A Google map marked by Quinn to identify the location of the contamination site

Now the onus is on Mayor Fouts and the City of Warren to address this health hazard — Quinn seems skeptical about their capacity to address the necessary repairs with diligence. But residents of Warren should never fear, because their newest artist-in-residence is already thinking about ways to up her game.

“Now I’m thinking I should really get a water testing kit,” said Quinn, “to stay on top of this and see what happens.”

Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...