WIXOM, MI – What exactly happened at Tribar Technologies the weekend a plating tank operator unleashed a near-environmental calamity?
What was the intention of the former Tribar employee who discharged hexavalent chromium into the sewers? Why did he resign a few days later? Why did he bypass the alarms for hours?
Why were there no safeguards in place to prevent such a thing from happening?
“Why would he be able to turn the key and flip the switch on his own?” asked Daniel Brown, a watershed planner for the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC) in Ann Arbor.
“Why should a guy be able to make that decision?”
The answers to these and other questions remain unanswered more than a month after the accident at Tribar, an automotive supplier to Metro Detroit where, on July 29, a plating tank full of toxic substances was spilled into the Wixom sewage system.
The rush overwhelmed the Wixom sewage treatment plant, which empties into the Huron River. Fortunately, the filters captured most of the chrome and a ‘no contact’ advisory was lifted after river testing revealed minimal detections.
But, while the uproar over the spill has died down, the state’s protracted investigation continues.
“Nothing has been ruled out at this point,” said Jill Greenberg, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).
“The investigation is focused on all aspects of the Tribar facility,” Greenberg said. “This includes their operations, their reporting systems and their staff.”
The state has previously said it is reviewing the Tribar incident for possible criminal charges after resuming an investigation originally launched by Wixom police.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also requested information about the spill from the state and Tribar, but did not say whether it was conducting a full investigation.
On Aug. 30, EGLE sent Tribar a letter stating that the company’s Aug. 19 responses to questions posed by the state regulator in an Aug. 9 Notice of Violation of the Act were “insufficient.” and, after being reviewed by water resources staff, were “not approvable at this time.”
Tribar faces an “escalation” of the environmental enforcement process, which EGLE typically reserves for flagrant or long-lasting pollution violations. Increased enforcement usually results in an administrative order, fines, or, if the case is litigious, civil action through the Attorney General.
The state’s investigation is multi-pronged and involves multiple divisions of EGLE, including a criminal investigative arm called the Environmental Investigation Services (EIS) Unit, which is shared with the Department of Natural Resources. (DNR) of the State.
Tribar also faces violations from EGLE’s air quality division for poor record keeping and failure to properly monitor metal processing tanks for toxic metal emissions.
The main control is carried out by the Water Resources Division (WRD), which regulates industrial waste water by applying pressure on municipal plants such as Wixom, which is authorized to accept pre-treated industrial waste water.
On August 9, EGLE’s Water Resources Division sent Tribar a six-page Notice of Violation following the chrome spill, which Tribar initially reported to the state via a tip line at the pollution on Monday August 1st.
According to the state notice, Tribar got off on the wrong foot with WRD regulators almost immediately by waiting until 3:51 p.m. to notify EGLE of the release after reporting it to Wixom City seven hours earlier at around 8:30 a.m. . Morning. Notifications of a “slug dump” are supposed to be made immediately over the phone, EGLE said.
Tribar was already the subject of a separate Notice of Violation from WRD at the time of the chrome spill for failing to maintain its required Pollution Incident Prevention Plan.
EGLE demanded a detailed timeline of events at Tribar Plant No. 5 on Alpha Drive prior to the unloading of Tank A on Friday, July 29. The letter included 18 specific requests, some with multiple sub-elements, relating to tank operator actions, tank chemicals contents, decision-making and notification protocols, protective measures and plans for prevent future spillage.
In the letter, the state asked why waste handling alarms were canceled 460 times over a period of nearly three hours that night.
EGLE asked for “information gathered” during an “exit interview” with Anthony Johnston, whose documents show is the name of the tank operator who released the chemicals.
In Tribar’s response of August 19, the company states: “Mr. Johnson “”decided on his own to push the contents of Tank A through the WT Plant; he did not reach anyone higher for clearance.
The response indicates that a discussion took place with Johnson at 5 p.m. on August 1, during which he said that the tank had been treated several times with sodium hydrosulphite, a chemical used to convert chromium hexavalent to a less toxic version called trivalent chromium. The contents of Tank A were considered waste after being moved from an etching tank seven days earlier.
Johnston “heard and saw alarms going off for high concentrations, so he cycled the system off and on to bypass and ignore the alarms,” Tribar wrote.
After the discussion, “Mr Johnson resigned, left and no ‘exit interview’ was conducted.
According to Tribar, Johnston “wasn’t allowed to be in the factory” this weekend. However, Tribar did not specifically respond to questions from EGLE asking for more details on this, including “why was a sewage operator in the facility, unattended, over the weekend” and “Who did the operator who canceled the alarms speak to during this time??”
The company also did not respond to EGLE’s questions regarding the chain of command for alarm overrides, the specific name of the alarm, whether it was “reset, bypassed, or canceled” and who was responsible for the alarm. waste treatment system.
Tribar replied that it would “consider” adding this information to an enterprise software system that it uses to manage day-to-day business activities.
According to Tribar, “less than three pounds” of hexavalent chromium was estimated in the 10,000 gallons of release that reached Wixom’s sewer, which is far below initial estimates reported to the state and city in the wake. immediately after the spill.
Granular activated carbon (GAC) filters installed on the Plant 5 effluent line to capture PFAS chemicals also captured the bulk of the chromium, about 1,500 pounds, according to EGLE. The remains settled in the biosolids of Wixom’s wastewater.
“The conservative determination is that less than 20 pounds of total chromium was released to receiving waters, compared to the initial reported release of 8,000 pounds of hexavalent chromium,” according to an Aug. 10 EGLE presentation on the ultimate contaminant fate. “The level of less than 20 pounds of total chromium is based on analytical data at the treatment plant. EGLE has great confidence in this amount of discharge.
In this regard, the river dodged a bullet.
On September 1, the City of Wixom announced that it was allowing Tribar Plant No. 5 to resume its sewage discharges after installing new guards.
In its press release, the city said Tribar’s new safeguards include increased staffing requirements during sewage treatment, increased staff training, additional effluent monitoring, new automated controls to prevent sewage to leave the factory, new security on these checks and restrictions on who can override them. .
Conversations among environmental groups about strengthening state environmental laws to place a greater cleanup burden on polluters continue. Democratic lawmakers began trumpeting the “polluter pays” bills in late August, while the legislature took a long break.
At the Huron River Watershed Council, Brown says the Tribar incident underscores the structural weakness of the state’s industrial wastewater regulatory program.
He thinks Tribar gets away with small releases that escape notice because of the way the state’s Industrial Pretreatment Program (IPP) allows companies to self-report.
“I’m not convinced at all that they didn’t make low level spills in the river undetected,” Brown said. “A number of things could go through the treatment plant. If it is just above the criteria, it is very possible that it will not be taken.
Tribar did not respond to questions from MLive about how his employee was able to be in the factory unattended, what kind of security was in place, why there was no management non-fiction system before the spill and the extent of discussions with Johnston after the incident.
“We don’t comment on personnel matters,” Tribar said. “Any questions relating to the investigation should be directed to law enforcement.”
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