Huron River pollution tests ‘encouraging’ but concern and anger remain

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Update, 8/8: Notice remains after chrome detections

MILFORD, MI — When will the river be safe to use again?

That’s what Scott and Heather Armstrong want to know. The two operate the Village Canoe Rental service in Milford, about a mile downstream from the outlet of Norton Creek to the Huron River, the point where a ‘no contact’ advisory begins due to a hexavalent chromium spill. .

The Armstrongs are encouraged by early river test results which so far have shown no detection of the toxic chemical several days after a manufacturing plant in Wixom released a large quantity into the sewers of the city.

But they also worry that continued discharges like the chrome spill, which follows toxic PFAS chemicals being released into the river by the same company, will affect the river’s reputation as an outdoor recreation spot. popular air.

“Our long-term concern is how will people view the Huron River? Because there was the PFAS from the same company and you can’t eat fish from the river. And now this,” Heather Armstrong said. “Are people going to say, ‘You know, maybe we’ll try another river because we don’t know what might be in that one.'”

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River advocates are concerned and angry this week after Tribar Technologies, an automotive supplier that uses hexavalent chromium in plating baths at its manufacturing plants in Wixom, released 10,000 gallons of liquid containing the toxic chemicals into the city’s sewage system, which discharges its effluents into the river.

The company’s Plant #5 near I-96 was closed in response to a cease and desist from the City of Wixom issued Tuesday, August 2 after the company disclosed the statement.

Exactly when the toxic effluent began flowing into the city’s system is a bit unclear. The company says it “discovered” the dump on Monday. The state says it was notified Monday afternoon just before 3:30 p.m. But the town of Wixom says the discharge began over the weekend, potentially as early as Saturday. The “no contact” notice came midday on Tuesday.

Hexavalent chromium, or hexachrome, is a carcinogenic chemical used in finishing plastics. It can cause a number of health problems through ingestion, skin contact, or inhalation.

As of Friday morning, the advisory remains in place for the river below Norton Creek as the state continues to test to determine if the water is safe to touch again.

“It’s a very potent carcinogen,” said Tasha Stoiber, senior scientist with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. Beyond cancer, chronic or acute exposure to large amounts can damage a person’s liver and reproductive system.

In plating companies like Tribar, hexachrome is used to coat the decorative trim parts of automobiles. Due to its toxicity, it is banned in Europe and many surface finishing companies have phased out its use in favor of less toxic chemicals.

Environmental groups this week questioned whether Tribar’s use of hexchrome violates supply chain standards for major automakers like Ford and General Motors, which are listed as customers on the company’s website. .

“I don’t think that meets the intent of what (automakers) are trying to do in terms of cleaning up their supply chain,” said Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center.

The outrage is widespread and has a bipartisan tinge, say other conservationists.

“We are angry. Everyone we talk to is angry,” said Daniel Brown, a watershed planner for the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC). “We’ve heard a pretty incredible wave of frustration from all the grassroots groups we interact with. The frustration and anger are quite palpable.

On Thursday, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) said it did not detect chromium in any of eleven water samples taken Tuesday and Wednesday downstream of Norton Creek. .

The state expanded testing to 29 more sites on Thursday, with a focus on reservoirs like Hubbell Pond in Milford and Kent Lake near the popular Kensington Metropark.

Sampling was also taking place at Barton Pond further downstream, where the city of Ann Arbor receives part of its drinking water supply. Although the slow-flowing river was not expected to bring chromium to Ann Arbor for several weeks, testing was underway to establish a baseline data set if contamination reached the city’s water intake.

The water samples were all taken from the top of the water column, in the top six to twelve inches.

Related: Spill Could Lead to Legal Action by City of Ann Arbor

Biosolids sludge from the Wixom sewage treatment plant was also tested, and city and state officials speculated that chromium may have deposited in these solids.

“It looks like we acted like a filter,” said Wixom City Manager Steve Brown.

Brown thinks the lack of chromium detection in the river is an encouraging sign that the city’s wastewater treatment may have broken down the chromium into less harmful byproducts.

“Hopefully we can continue to achieve great results.”

According to the city’s Aug. 2 letter to Tribar, obtained by MLive through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, the company sent approximately 10,000 gallons of toxic, untreated sewage to the city “during the weekend of July 30, 2022”. ”

The city limit for hexachrome in wastewater is 0.44 parts per million (ppm). Tribar’s release far exceeded that. The letter says Tribar “released approximately 4,170 pounds in 48 hours” with concentrations of 95 to 130 ppm.

The treatment plant first tried to contain the discharge by diverting it to a holding tank and a ditch. But staff resumed sending him to Norton Creek once those were filled, Brown said.

The incident prompted Wixom Police to launch an investigation to determine whether the company or employees acted negligently or with criminal intent. Brown said the investigation was officially turned over to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

State officials at EGLE say the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) requested and received a briefing on the incident this week, but it is unclear whether they will also investigate.

The company has already discharged contaminants into the river. Tribar is primarily responsible for the existing ‘Do Not Eat’ fishing advisory in the river due to PFAS chemicals, which were also released into the river from the Wixom sewage treatment plant.

The company was formerly called Adept Plastic Finishing before being acquired by HCI Equity Partners.

“Everyone is worried, angry and disappointed — including the people of the city,” said Brown, who said the city is awaiting state test results before taking any punitive action.

“Language in the sewer ordinance may come into play.”

Tribar said nothing publicly about the incident until Thursday evening when he released a statement through public relations firm Lambert, saying he “took immediate action, including ensuring the release was stopped and contacting the sewage treatment plant “after discovering the release of the plating solution” on Monday, August 1.

“Tribar takes the health and safety of our neighbors and our community, as well as the protection of the environment, very seriously,” the company said. “Tribar continues to investigate the circumstances surrounding the release and will take appropriate action to prevent it from happening again. We will continue to provide updates as we learn more.

At the watershed council, Brown is unsure what to make of the lack of chromium detection in state test results so far. There is uncertainty about how the chemicals will behave in the river, he said. Exposure to air and aerated water could break them down into trivalent chromium, a less toxic version.

“Everything we’re seeing right now is encouraging,” he said. “Non-detections are the best we can get right now. But right now it’s more vigilance, more testing, more caution and keeping people out of the river until we know. other.

That’s also the plan at Kensington Metropark, where boat rentals and beach access will remain closed for now.

“It’s encouraging but not definitive,” Metroparks spokeswoman Danielle Mauter said. “This is still a developing issue and we look forward to seeing the test results from today and the days to come.”

Related stories:

River tests show no hexchrome, says EGLE

Hexchrome could take weeks to reach Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor OK Council Lawsuit Against Tribar

Wixom Police Investigate Hexachrome Tribar Spill

No contact with Huron River requested after spill

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