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Issues of the Environment: The latest on the chemical contamination of the Huron River

Rebecca Esselman
Huron River Watershed Council
/
hrwc.org
Rebecca Esselman

Overview

  • Tribar Technologies, a Wixom auto supplier, is responsible for a tremendous release of industrial contamination into the Huron River, according to Michigan environmental regulators. "Several thousand gallons” of liquid containing hexavalent chromium have spilled into the Huron River. Tribar has indicated that the spill event appears to have occurred as early as July 30, 2022. Since the chemical was first detected on August 1st, it has since been discovered that alarms warning of a breach at the Tribar plant were overridden nearly 500 times. (As of Friday, August 12th it appears the spill was closer to 20 pounds, according to sampling of the river.)
  • Hexavalent chromium is a known carcinogen that has been voluntarily phased out by many auto part manufacturers. Exposure can lead to nasal and sinus cancers, kidney and liver damage, and nasal, skin, and eye irritation. 
  • This chemical release follows Tribar’s contamination of the Huron River via a large release of PFAS in 2018. The PFAS release led to a “do not eat” advisory for fish from the Huron River and surrounding watershed. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services advised no contact with the water between North Wixom Road in Oakland County and Kensington Road in Livingston County. (The “no contact” advisory was lifted August 12th.)
  • Although Ann Arbor is downstream from Wixom, nearly all of its municipal water is sourced from the Huron River. Officials say, as yet, drinking water is testing clear of hexavalent chromium. Continuous sampling by The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) along the river is tracking the dispersal of the chemical plume. 
  • Local and state politicians are fed up with Tribar’s disregard for water safety. Protesters staged a non-violent demonstration at Tribar, and another police-involved protest at the home of Tribar's CEO. Environment groups and politicians cite the Tribar’s repeat offense as evidence that polluter pay laws are in need of tightening, and Ann Arbor City Council has authorized legal action against Tribar.
  • Tribar insists that safety protocols are in place, the employee responsible was unauthorized and no longer works for the company, and the carbon filtration in place prevented most of the chemical from reaching the river. 
  • Rebecca Esselman, Executive Director of the Huron River Watershed Council, says that testing results published on August 12 show that the amount of hexavalent chromium spilled was far less than feared. She is eager for people to get back to enjoying the river, and hopeful that this wake-up call leads to greater accountability for polluters. The HRWC also believes polluters should pay for any and all costs associated with monitoring, testing, and cleanup of environmental damage they cause.

Transcription

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And, once again, we are tasked with discussing threats to the health of the Huron River. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. Recently, the Wixom-based auto supply company Tribar Technologies reportedly spilled thousands of gallons of liquid containing the carcinogenic chemical hexavalent chromium into the river. It's since been determined the spill likely included about 20 pounds of the chemical. Now, this is the same company that in 2018 had a major release of PFAS chemicals into the Huron. The contamination from that incident has resulted in a "do not eat fish" advisory that runs nearly the entire span of the river, including through Washtenaw County. For all the efforts to make the Huron as clean and safe as a waterway as possible, these ongoing chemical threats make the work more daunting. Our guest is in the thick of it all. Rebecca Esselman is executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council. And thank you for joining us today. I appreciate it, Rebecca.

Rebecca Esselman: Thank you, David, and good morning.

David Fair: I can only imagine your frustration with this latest incident, but when word of the spill came out, were you truly surprised?

Rebecca Esselman: I would say I was surprised, David. You know, when Tribar was identified as the source of most of the PFAS contamination to the Huron River in 2018, you would think after an incident like that, a company would tighten up significantly and ensure something like this wouldn't happen in the future. So, on good faith, I was surprised. I hear that Tribar again was releasing toxic chemicals to our system.

David Fair: I know the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy has been monitoring the spill. And the good news is, last Friday, it lifted the no physical contact restrictions for the river in the portions of Oakland and Livingston counties affected. And there is no evidence that any of the chemical has reached the nearest water intakes, which happens to be in Ann Arbor. What has been happening since last Friday?

Rebecca Esselman: The Department of Health and Human Services and EGLE continue to do testing of the here on river both the water column and the sediment. The City of Ann Arbor also continues to test the source water in Barton Pond, where they get the drinking water from the Huron River. So, there will be ongoing testing just for extra vigilance to make sure that that chromium does not affect Ann Arbor's drinking water.

David Fair: The investigation shows Tribar company alarms warned of a breach and were overridden nearly 500 times before the spill was acknowledged. The company says the responsible employee was unauthorized and is no longer an employee, and that its carbon filtration system prevented most of the chemical from making it into the river. Now, the rather slow and reactive response is counter to the proactive measures that were in place to prevent such issues. Doesn't that make the public remarks from Tribar appear to be light on accountability?

Rebecca Esselman: It certainly does. And I would argue that the majority of the chemical was removed at Wixom's wastewater treatment plant. The amount that left the facility was far above safe levels.

David Fair: WEMU's Issues of the Environment continues with Rebecca Esselman. She is executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council. And let's look further at accountability. Ann Arbor City Council has authorized its legal staff to explore the possibility of taking legal action against Tribar. For years now, state representative Yousef Rabhi and State Senator Jeff Irwin--both or Ann Arbor Democrats--have introduced polluter pay legislation that would make polluting companies financially liable for the messes they create. Those legislative proposals can't even make it out of committee in Lansing. What legal and/or legislative actions do you see necessary to protect not only the Huron River, but all of the state's freshwater resources?

Rebecca Esselman: That's a good question, David. And I do think, in this case, legal action against Tribar technologies in particular is important just because of the nature of the repeat offenses and violations by that particular company. As far as the broader issue, you know, this is where the story is really important and needs to remain front and center. We have soft laws and regulations in the state of Michigan that do not make sure that events like this can't happen. And so, what we need to do is really revisit what we have at the state level as far as capacity in our agencies, our regulatory agencies, our laws on the books, and, you know, the regulatory authority of the state, which puts the responsibility of any kind of spill that happens--the toxic chemical, the cleanup and containment of that spill or release on the polluter and themselves. Right now, the burden falls on the taxpayer, the general public, the state agencies, etc.

David Fair: As such, will the Huron River Watershed Council become party to any legal action against Tribar Technologies?

Rebecca Esselman: We have not made any decisions in that space yet.

David Fair: As of this moment, as you mentioned, drinking water for the 125,000 or so residents reliant on the Huron River and the Ann Arbor Municipal Water Supply from Barton Pond appears safe from the hexavalent chromium. But you also mention we're still dealing with the PFAS contamination from Tribar in the Huron River. The "Do Not Eat Fish" advisory remains in effect. Has there been any progress this year as we approach the end of another summer with that advisory still in effect?

Rebecca Esselman: Unfortunately, David, any hopes of progress in that space were shattered when EPA came out earlier this summer with a more strict advisory or recommended levels of PFAS for public health concerns. So, the state was just considering lifting some of the "do not eat fish" advisory for portions of the Huron River based on established safety levels and testing that they've been doing ongoing of our fish. Right on the heels of that, we heard from the EPA that essentially there is no safe level of PFAS. Therefore, the "do not eat fish" advisory will remain in place.

David Fair: And I guess with that information in hand, there's really no end in sight to the advisory, right?

Rebecca Esselman: Over time, you know, fish have shorter life spans, and it will move through the system as long as there's no additional sources of PFAS to the Huron River. So, there is a point in the future where this will not be a concern, but, at that point, is not now.

David Fair: It's not just about the health of the waterway itself. This is a region that is reliant on the Huron River, and it has direct economic impacts if we lose accessibility to recreation and other forms of uses that we have for the Huron River. Have you started to assess what the damages might be?

Rebecca Esselman: We know, anecdotally, from our partners, for example, at the canoe liveries and businesses that utilize the river as part of, you know, their business. We know that it's revalued. We did an economic valuation study of the Huron River a few years back and learned that it generates as much revenue in a year as a U of M football season. It is a huge revenue generator. And when something like this happens and closes--literally closes--down the river for two weeks, there are businesses very directly impacted by that. And then, you also have to think about the erosion of trust that people experience when they hear this over and over again. The water is not safe. The water is safe. The water is not safe. The water is safe. And what does that do for businesses that rely on the Huron River for their revenue?

David Fair: Once again, we're talking with Rebecca Esselman of the Huron River Watershed Council. And we've been focused on Tribar's impacts on the Huron River, but we're still dealing with the one-four dioxane plume from the old Gelman Science facility as well. The plume continues to spread. Again, as we approach end of summer, what is the latest?

Rebecca Esselman: Right now, the court case around Gelman is in the appeals process. So, it's been a little bit slow-moving as far as legal action. A couple of years ago now, a judge ruled that a renegotiated clean-up set of standards needed to be carried out by Gelman, and they have been making progress on that. But the appeals court process is slowing that down.

David Fair: Many favor requesting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate the Gelman Plume a Superfund cleanup site that would bring federal resources to not just monitor, but to actually remediate. Is that the scenario you favor most?

Rebecca Esselman: I favor whatever scenario gets that site cleaned up aggressively. I think the verdict is still out on whether that would be federally led or state led. Really, I'm just pushing for whatever gets the job done.

David Fair: So, as you look at the year ahead for the Huron River, its health, and its continuing impact on the area's communities, what is going to be top priority?

Rebecca Esselman: For the Huron River Watershed Council, our top priority is making sure that our residents and users of the river are informed and are looking to us for the best available information on the health and status of the river. And we will also be putting a lot of effort into supporting Senator Irwin and Representative Rabhi in getting these polluter pay laws to get passed either now or in future legislatures. One silver lining to this whole situation is that we have seen very bipartisan outcry in response to the hexavalent chromium spill. And I think that people are starting to understand now where there are some failings in our laws and our ability to regulate at the state level, and they're ready to see that change. And I'm really hoping that that momentum translates into action, and we can get these polluter pay laws passed.

David Fair: We will be following along. Thank you so much for the time today, Rebecca.

Rebecca Esselman: Thank you, David.

David Fair: That is Rebecca Esselman, executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council and our guest on Issues of the Environment. It's produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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Nearly three-quarters of David Fair’s 20+ years in radio has been at WEMU. Since 1994, he has been on the air at 5am each weekday on 89.1 FM as the local host of NPR’s Morning Edition. Over the years, Fair has had the opportunity to interview nationally and internationally known politicians, activists and celebrities. But he feels the most important features and interviews have been with those who live and work here at home. He believes his professional passions and desires fit perfectly into WEMU’s commitment to serving a local audience.
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