The pollution of the River Huron is “encouraging”, but concern and anger remain

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

This is what Scott and Heather Armstrong want to know. The two operate the Village Canoe Rental service in Milford, about a mile downstream of the Norton Creek outlet to the River Huron, where a “no contact” warning 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 facility in Wixom released a large amount of it into the city sewers.

But they are also concerned about what continued releases such as the chromium spill, which follows the same company discharges of toxic PFAS chemicals into the river, will do to the river’s reputation as a popular outdoor recreation spot.

“The long-term concern for us is how will people look at the River Huron? Because there was the PFAS of the same company and you cannot eat river fish. And now this, “Heather Armstrong said.” People will say, ‘You know, maybe we’ll try a different river because we don’t know what could be in that.’ “

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River supporters are worried and angry this week after Tribar Technologies, an automobile supplier that uses hexavalent chromium in plating baths at its manufacturing facilities in Wixom, releases 10,000 gallons of liquid containing the toxic chemicals into the wastewater system. of the city, which discharges its effluents into the river.

Plant no. 5 of the company near I-96 was closed in response to a cease and desist from the city of Wixom issued on Tuesday, Aug.2 after the company disclosed the release.

Exactly when the toxic effluent started flowing into the city system is a bit confusing. The company claims it “discovered” the discharge on Monday. The state says it was notified Monday afternoon just before 3:30 pm, but the city of Wixom says the discharge began over the weekend, potentially as early as Saturday. The “no contact” warning arrived mid-day Tuesday.

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

Starting Friday morning, the warning remains in effect for the river downstream from Norton Creek as the state continues testing to determine if the water is safe to touch again.

“It’s a very potent carcinogen,” said Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist with the nonprofit environmental working group. In addition to cancer, chronic or acute exposure in high quantities can damage a person’s liver and reproductive system.

In plating companies such as Tribar, hexatochrome is used to coat the decorative parts of automobile trims. 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 hexachrome 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 this matches the intent of what (the automakers) are trying to do in terms of cleaning their supply chain,” said Jeff Gearhart, director of research at the Ecology Center.

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

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

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

The state extended testing to 29 more sites on Thursday, focusing on seizures such as Hubbell Pond in Milford and Kent Lake near the famous Kensington Metropark.

Sampling was also taking place in Barton Pond, further downstream, where the city of Ann Arbor receives part of its drinking water supply. Although the slow-flowing river is not expected to bring chromium to Ann Arbor for several weeks, tests were underway to establish a baseline data set in the event that the contamination reaches the city’s take.

The water samples were all taken from the top of the water column, in the first 6-12 inches.

Related: The spill could require legal action in the city of Ann Arbor

The biosolid sludge at the Wixom wastewater plant was also tested, and state and city officials theorize that chromium may have deposited in those solids.

“We seem to have acted as a filter,” said Steve Brown, Wixom city manager.

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

“We hope we can continue to achieve great results.”

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

The city limit for excrome in wastewater is 0.44 parts per million (ppm). Tribar’s release far surpassed that. The letter says Tribar “discharged approximately 4,170 pounds over the course of 48 hours” with concentrations ranging from 95 to 130 ppm.

The wastewater plant initially tried to contain the discharge by diverting it to a cistern and a ditch. But staff resumed sending it to Norton Creek once they were filled, Brown said.

The incident prompted Wixom police to open an investigation to determine whether the company or employees acted negligently or with criminal intent. Brown said the investigation was formally entrusted to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

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

The company has already released contaminants into the river. Tribar is primarily responsible for the current “Do Not Eat” fish warning in the river due to the PFAS chemicals, which are also discharged into the river through the Wixom Sewage Plant.

The company was previously named Adept Plastic Finishing before being acquired by HCI Equity Partners.

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

“Language in the Sewer Ordinance could come into play.”

Tribar did not say anything publicly about the incident until Thursday night when he released a statement via public relations firm Lambert, saying he “took immediate action, including making sure the release was stopped and contacting the treatment plant. sewage “after discovering the release of the plating solution” on Monday 1 August.

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

At the watershed council, Brown isn’t sure what to think about the lack of chromium detection in the state test results so far. There is uncertainty about how the chemicals in the river will behave, he said. Exposure to air and aerated water could break them down into trivalent chromium, a less toxic version.

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

This is also the floor 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. “It’s still a developing problem and we can’t wait to see the test results for today and the next few days.”

Related Stories:

River tests show no excrome, EGLE says

Hexchrome could take weeks to reach Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor Board of OK Lawsuit Against Tribar

Wixom police investigate the Tribar hexachrome spill

No contact with the River Huron was urged after the spill

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