Large amounts of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals were released into the sewer system in Wixom, Michigan late last month by Tribar Technologies, an auto parts supplier whose customers include Ford, General Motors and Stellantis Jeep.
The toxic mixture, which included the notorious industrial chemical hexavalent chromium, traveled from the sewage treatment plant to the Huron River, which runs through the towns of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, before emptying into Lake Erie at Rockwood, 20 miles south of Detroit. A “no contact” advisory has been put in place for a section of the river closest to the plant.
More than 3 million people could potentially be affected by contamination in the river, which runs through six counties downstream from the spill and supplies drinking water to several cities, including Ann Arbor.
The spill into the sewer system may have started as early as the morning of Saturday July 30, despite Tribar claiming to have discovered it only the morning of Monday August 1, reporting the spill to the Department of the Environment of Michigan, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) seven hours after its discovery.
According to news outlet Great Lakes Now, staff at the Wixom sewage treatment plant, upon learning of the spill, worked to divert as much sewage as possible into holding tanks and containment ditches which have quickly overfilled, and staff had to leave the rest of the liquid in Norton Creek, part of the Huron River watershed.
Wixom Police opened a criminal investigation into Tribar last Wednesday to determine what caused the release of toxic chemicals and whether it was a deliberate criminal offence.
Hexavalent chromium is used at Tribar in the production of decorative trim for the automotive industry. Hexavalent chromium compounds are found primarily in industrial applications, such as paints, dyes, plastics, and metal plating.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) clearly states that exposure to hexavalent chromium, including ingestion, inhalation and skin contact, is known to be carcinogenic and can cause damage to the respiratory system, kidneys, liver, skin and eyes.
Common industrial treatment of hexavalent chromium wastewater is to reduce it, by chemical or electrical means, to trivalent chromium, a less toxic chromium ion which is then precipitated as the hydroxide. Wixom limits the concentration of hexavalent chromium in wastewater to less than 0.44 parts per million (ppm). However, of the 10,000 gallons of liquid released by Tribar, hexavalent chromium constituted five percent, hundreds of times higher than the set limit.
Tribar shut down plant operations in response to a cease and desist letter issued by the City of Wixom allowing the company to discharge only typical household waste into the city’s sewer system.
In the coming weeks, contamination from the spill is expected to reach southeastern counties, including the city of Ann Arbor. The Ann Arbor City Government issued a statement on its website assuring residents that tap water is always safe for all purposes and asserted that “City staff have ordered supplies which will arrive next week. next which will help us assess our ability to remove chromium from the water supply should it become necessary. The city has also not placed limits on recreational activities in the river.
Following the report of the August 1 spill, a series of surface water samples downstream of Wixom were collected and analyzed. Initially, the samples taken on August 2 and 3 did not indicate the presence of chromium. However, on Friday August 5, three samples from Hubbell’s Pond in Milford and the middle of Kent Lake showed signs of chromium at concentrations of 11, 9 and 5 parts per billion (ppb) respectively. When releasing the test results, EGLE officials said they would continue their investigation, including determining whether much of the chrome spill remained linked to the Wixom sewage treatment plant.
Hexavalent chromium concentrations in water samples remain at a relatively low level at present. However, as the investigation is still at a very preliminary stage, the health impacts of the chemical discharge and especially the criminality of the incident should not be understated. Serious questions must also be raised about whether plant workers receive adequate protection when exposed to hexavalent chromium on the job.
Tribar has a notorious record of violating the health and safety of workers and the general public. The company was founded in 1995 and is now owned by a private equity firm, HCI Equity Partners, based in Washington, DC. The company employs 60 people and has annual revenue of more than $11 million, according to Kona Equity statistics.
In 2018, the Tribar’s Beck Road plant in Wixom was deemed by state officials to be the primary source of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) contamination in the Huron River. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a review that year that linked PFAS to multiple harms, including cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and other diseases. thyroid. The severity of the contamination resulted in “do not eat” advisories for fish taken from the river and surrounding lakes, ponds and streams, which remain in effect to this day.
Tribar did not face any penalties or fines in connection with the 2018 sewage discharges. At the time, Michigan, like many states, had no regulations prohibiting sewage discharges contaminated with of PFAS, and Tribar had already phased out the use of PFAS at the Beck Road plant. Tribar took steps at the plant to filter PFAS from its wastewater, but the property’s stormwater drained into the Red River watershed, which then empties into the Detroit River. In 2021, EGLE ordered Tribar to “take immediate action” to resolve the issue.
Far from righting the wrongs, Tribar was found responsible for extremely high levels of PFAS in beef from a family farm in southeast Michigan last January. The crops fed to the cows were fertilized with sewage biosolids that contained the toxic chemical released by Tribar. Beef unsafe due to contamination had already been purchased by many local customers, including a number of local schools and preschools.
Tribar has not been penalized or ordered to stop practices that contaminate water for drinking, agriculture and livestock. While the health of millions of residents along the river is at risk, neither HCI nor Tribar leaders have yet been charged or arrested for what amounts to criminal negligence to say the least. As of this writing, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has not publicly commented on the contamination in the Huron River.
It’s impossible to discuss water safety, or lack thereof, in Michigan without mentioning lead poisoning in the town of Flint, just an hour north of Wixom. In April 2014, as part of a for-profit program to promote the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA), a private for-profit entity, the city’s water source was transferred to the heavily polluted Flint River without add anti-corrosion treatment. More than 90,000 Flint residents have been affected by drinking water containing lead and other toxic chemicals.
Flint’s high lead water level has been deliberately covered up by officials at all levels, including those of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appointed by the Obama administration. In the eight years since the shutdown, hundreds of people have fallen ill and countless children have suffered developmental problems from exposure to lead, a neurotoxin. None of those responsible faced serious charges or jail time.
Still on hold to this day, residents of Flint are still being denied access to clean, lead-free water and have yet to receive any compensation for the harm and damage done to them. More than 40,000 claims on a totally inadequate $626 million settlement have yet to be reviewed and approved. Meanwhile, many residents are still dealing with long-term impacts.
Repeated episodes of water poisoning across Michigan are crimes of capitalism, which prioritizes profit over the welfare, health and safety of the people.