Tribar Manufacturing, the Wixom automotive supplier responsible for a release of potentially cancer-causing hexavalent chromium into the Huron River late last month, apparently overrode alarms 460 times on July 29, as a large tank containing the chemical was drained into the city of Wixom's wastewater treatment system, state regulators allege in violation notices issued to the company.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy on Tuesday issued a "Second Violation Notice — Egregious" to Tribar Manufacturing, claiming company personnel:
Improperly released pollutants into the publicly owned Wixom wastewater treatment facility.
Failed to report the hexavalent chromium release in a timely fashion to the Wixom wastewater treatment plant.
Failed to have an up-to-date, certified pollution incident prevention plan.
"Because of the gravity of the violations, WRD (EGLE's Water Resources Division) moved directly into second notification and escalated enforcement, normally a three-step process," EGLE spokeswoman Jill Greenberg said.
'Please explain' how alarms were overridden
EGLE's violation notice states that according to a required release incident report Tribar officials provided to the agency and the city of Wixom on Aug. 5, the contents had been held in "Tank A," a 14,923-gallon rinse waste holding tank that contained approximately 10,000 gallons of material containing approximately 5% hexavalent chromium. The tank was emptied on July 29 and entered the sanitary sewer.
EGLE is seeking answers from the company on actions its operator took that Friday evening that resulted in the tank being drained into the sewer system.
"Please explain how the operator overrode the waste treatment alarms 460 times between the programmable logic controller time stamp of 4:59 p.m. to 7:46 p.m. on Friday, July 29, 2022," EGLE's notice states.
Company data logs also "recorded ongoing high-level alarms between 4:59 p.m. and 7:46 p.m. on Friday, July 29, 2022. Another high-level alarm was recorded at 11 p.m. that same day. Provide who responded to the 11 p.m. alarm. Explain why there was no low-level alarm recorded if Tank A was emptied sometime Friday evening," EGLE's violation notice to Tribar states.
Former employee blamed
Tribar Manufacturing officials, in an emailed statement to the Free Press, attributed the actions to a since-dismissed employee.
"Tribar has invested millions of dollars in sophisticated environmental controls to prevent an accidental release of wastewater prior to treatment at our facility. Based on an initial investigation, those automated controls were all functioning properly at the time the plating solution was released to the wastewater treatment plant. However, the controls were repeatedly overridden by the operator on duty while the facility was shut down for the weekend. That individual is no longer employed by our company, and we are in the process of further improving our internal controls to prevent a future occurrence."
Order to stay out of Huron River remains in place
EGLE is seeking a detailed account of actions company personnel took once the release was discovered on the morning of Aug. 1, and thereafter through Aug. 8.
"The Slug Report (the notice of the wastewater treatment release from Tribar) identifies that Plant 5 was not in production and that no one should be at the facility during production downtimes. Why was a wastewater treatment operator in the facility, unsupervised, during the weekend of Friday, July 29, 2022, to Monday, August 1, 2022? To whom did the operator who overrode the alarms report during this time?" EGLE asks in the violation notice.
Representatives of nonprofit environmental groups reacted with outrage at the new revelations about the hexavalent chromium release into the Huron River.
"The fact that (Tribar Technologies) overrode their alarm system over 460 times is certainly egregious," said Tim Minotas, legislative and political coordinator with the nonprofit Sierra Club's Michigan chapter.
"It's appalling that one industrial company is able to cause so much damage to our rivers, and did so knowingly. We don’t need more proof that industry must be held accountable and forced, by law, to pay for the pollution they cause."
Lax environmental laws "leave bad actors like Tribar free to pollute with impunity," said Sean McBrearty, legislative and policy director with the nonprofit Clean Water Action.
"The fact that they overrode their own alarms 460 times shows an obscene level of incompetence and disregard for our environment and public health."
McBrearty called for the closure of the Tribar Manufacturing facility, and urged the Michigan Legislature to pass HB 4314, a bill introduced in the state House of Representatives by state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, with 49 Democratic Party cosponsors, calling for stricter polluter-pay provisions in Michigan for contaminating industries. The bill failed to move out of the Republican-controlled state House Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Committee last year.
Tribar Manufacturing officials, in their statement, said they are working with EGLE, the city of Wixom and their environmental consultants Barr and August Mack to investigate the release and conduct testing and response activity. The company is conducting its own investigation of the incident and plans to share a report of its findings on Thursday, officials stated.
'The Erin Brockovich chemical'
Of 144 water samples collected throughout 42 river miles since the release, three came back with detections of hexavalent chromium — two detections in Milford’s Hubbell Pond and one in the middle of Kent Lake. The Kent Lake detection, completed by lab analysis late Friday — was 5 parts per billion (ppb) — just at the detectable limit of 5 ppb. The two Hubbell Pond detections were 11 and 9 parts per billion. All three were at or below regulatory values to protect aquatic life.
Hexavalent chromium is a metal used in electroplating, stainless steel production, leather tanning, textile manufacturing and wood preservation. It can be harmful to human health when ingested, touched or inhaled, and has been associated with breathing problems and lung and intestinal cancers.
Hexavalent chromium has been dubbed "the Erin Brockovich chemical" after the California woman who discovered widespread contamination with the metal from a large state utility. Actress Julia Roberts' portrayal of the citizen turned environmental activist in the 2000 movie "Erin Brockovich" won Roberts the Best Actress Academy Award the following year.
Greenberg did not have information on potential fines that could be associated with the violations of the state Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.
"Penalties will be determined further into the process as the investigation continues," she said.
Tribar Manufacturing was earlier identified as the source of potentially health-harming, nonstick PFAS contamination to the river system, and installed additional filtration to help address that problem in 2018.
Contact Keith Matheny: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Regulators: Company overrode alarms as chemical flowed to Huron River