Tribar employee canceled alarm 460 times before Huron River spill

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LANSING, MI – A Tribar Technologies employee in Wixom canceled the company’s waste disposal alarms 460 times in the space of nearly three hours overnight, which state regulators say has started last weekend.

This extraordinary detail is part of new information about the circumstances surrounding a release of hexavalent chromium into the Wixom sewer system contained in Notices of Violation issued by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy ( EGLE).

In an Aug. 9 “flagrant” violation letter sent to Tribar, an auto supplier that manufactures chrome parts using toxic chemicals, state regulators demanded more information about what happened. passed at the company’s Wixom Factory #5 on Alpha Drive on Friday, July 7. 29.

According to EGLE’s notice, this is when a 14,923 gallon waste rinse tank containing approximately 10,000 gallons of “acid etchant” with approximately 5% total chromium was emptied. into Wixom’s sewage system as a contamination plug, which overwhelmed the sewage treatment plant.

The Wixon Mill empties into the Huron River via the Norton Creek Drain above Milford.

Between 4:59 p.m. and 7:46 p.m. on July 29, the tanker operator silenced waste processing alarms 460 times, or about once every 20 seconds, according to the notice. Another “high level” alarm was recorded at 11 p.m.

How and why this happened is unclear. EGLE says the company has not been fully forthcoming in its investigation, which involves the state’s Criminal Environmental Investigation Branch.

Tribar did not report the release until Monday, August 1, when employee Ryan O’Keefe made an 8 a.m. report to the Pollution Emergency Alert System (PEAS) attributing the release to a “operator error”.

“Why was a sewage treatment operator in the facility, unattended, over the weekend?” asked Teresa Seidel, director of EGLE’s water resources division, in the letter. “Who did the operator who canceled the alarms speak to during this time?”

For now, the answers are yet to come.

“We repeatedly asked them for critical information about their systems and the timeline of what happened. They provided information but did not provide the level of information we need for the investigation” , said EGLE spokesman Hugh McDiarmid.

“This whole weekend schedule is unclear to us and they weren’t helpful in putting it together,” McDiarmid said.

Last week, Tribar said it “took immediate action, including ensuring the discharge was stopped and contacting the sewage treatment plant” last Monday.

In a statement to MLive on Wednesday, Tribar said it was reviewing the breach notices with environmental consultants Barr and August Mack and would share the results of the internal investigation this week.

The tank operator is no longer employed by Tribar, the company said.

“Tribar has invested millions of dollars in sophisticated environmental controls to prevent accidental release of wastewater prior to treatment at our plant. Based on an initial investigation, these automated controls were all functioning correctly at the time the plating solution was discharged into the wastewater treatment plant,” the company said. “However, the orders were repeatedly canceled by the on-duty operator while the facility was closed for the weekend. This person is no longer employed by our company and we are in the process of further improving our internal controls to prevent this from happening again in the future.

Tribar released additional information Wednesday evening, saying the employee who canceled the alarms “resigned before the start of his shift on Monday.”

The company said it didn’t know why he was there after hours. “At the time of the event, his manager was unaware that he was onsite after hours and did not allow him to be onsite after hours,” Tribar said.

The company said there was no way for offsite management to know the alarms were being ignored. “However, Tribar is in the process of updating its controls to promptly notify management and put in place other controls to prevent any attempt to override an alarm that could cause an event like this to repeat itself.”

The company declined to respond to the employee’s intent, saying “we have cooperated fully with inquiries from Wixom Police and the FBI.” Last week, EGLE confirmed that it had briefed the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the matter. The City of Wixom also said it turned its criminal investigation over to the state.

EGLE announced the notices of violation on Wednesday, August 10, more than a week after the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) issued a “no-contact” advisory on August 2 for the Huron River downstream. by Wixom.

The violations are part of an “accelerated enforcement” process against Tribar that EGLE says will involve administrative consent negotiations and attempts to recover costs incurred by the state in response to the spill, which has triggered a week of widespread testing on the river.

The company did not immediately notify EGLE of the spill, interfered with a city’s sewage treatment and failed to maintain a pollution prevention plan, EGLE says.

The citations follow unrelated notices of violation from the agency’s air quality division following a July inspection, which found the company was not keeping adequate records and n was not properly using equipment that controls nickel and chromium emissions.

Tribar has until August 20 to respond to water violations and August 30 to respond to air quality violations, EGLE said.

Tribar operates four factories in Wixom and two in Howell. The company was formerly called Adept Plastic Finishing before being acquired by HCI Equity Partners in 2016.

Tribar’s No. 5 plant is operating but not discharging sewage into the city, which issued a cease and desist order last week.

The state has maintained the contact advisory so far this week, though river testing has found minimal contaminant detections, leading state and local authorities to express optimism that contaminants were largely related to filters from Tribar and the Wixom factory.

There has been widespread concern about the possibility of contaminants reaching the city of Ann Arbor’s water intake downstream at Barton Pond, although computer modeling has shown that the slow-flowing river is unlikely to bring no chrome in town for several weeks.

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

EGLE says its test data has been forwarded to DHHS, which is expected to make a decision on whether to pursue the contact notice in the coming days.

Activists outraged by the spill gathered at Heavner Canoe Rental in Milford on Wednesday to call for tougher polluter liability laws and punitive action against Tribar.

The company has already polluted 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.

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, led the crowd, chanting “shut them up!” and urged people to call on Lansing lawmakers to support “polluter pays” legislation.

“They need to be closed. They need to be held accountable – GM, Ford, every manufacturer needs to stop doing business with them,” Rabhi said.

“I want them to be chased into oblivion.”

Related stories:

Dingell seeks bigger hand from EPA in Huron River spill

EGLE finds low hexchrome in river tests

Encouraging tests, but concern and anger remain

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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