An official with a regional environmental group says the company responsible for the release of thousands of gallons of a toxic compound into the Huron River is a “bad actor” responsible for several air quality violations and linked to contaminated fertilizer sludge on farms throughout southeast Michigan.
Daniel A. Brown is a Watershed Planner for the Huron River Watershed Council. He says there is “tremendous outrage” at Tribar Technologies, which officials say released between 8,000 and 10,000 gallons of wastewater containing 5% of hexavalent chromium from its Wixom facility.
Also known as hexchrome, the compound is used in plastic finishing and is a known carcinogen. It is banned in Europe and is no longer used by many companies in the U.S. Because the discharge passed through the Wixom sewage plant, state health and environmental officials on Tuesday issued a “no contact” advisory for the river.
Brown says the community’s anger at Tribar is “as palpable as I’ve ever seen in an environmental issue of this scale” adding that it was another example of how Michigan’s pollution laws and regulatory framework have been severely weakened over time.
“As with PFAS, we should be banning non-essential uses of hexavalent chromium,” said Brown. “There is even a readily available safe replacement: trivalent chromium.”
Brown says the affected area basically extends from the Island Lake State Recreation Area up through Milford and into the Proud Lake State Recreation Area.
“Details are changing quickly, but right now, we’re expecting the hexchrome plume will render this section of the Huron River off limits to swimming and other recreation for the remainder of the summer season,” Brown said. “Tribar has directly damaged the environment and the local economy of the area.”
A request for comment has been made to Tribar officials.
While drinking water is unaffected at this point, Brown says they are receiving many concerned inquiries about private wells near the river. However, he says the only drinking water concern at this point is the City of Ann Arbor, which gets 85% of it’s water from the Huron River.
“The best estimate is that the plume will take 2-3 weeks to get to Ann Arbor, if it doesn’t break down before it gets there,” he said. “If it does reach Ann Arbor, we’re looking at a potential catastrophe affecting the drinking water of about 200,000 people. Hopefully that won’t happen.”
Brown says the good news is that lakes and streams not connected to the Huron River should be safe, including the Chain of Lakes area, which is outside the advisory. Despite that, he is still recommending people not swim in the area until they can confirm the plume hasn’t spread that far.
For those people who did make contact with the river over the weekend or earlier this week, Brown believes there is no immediate cause for panic.
“Hexchrome can cause a nasty, painful rash, but the levels in most parts of the river were likely not high enough to affect most people from a single exposure,” he said. “By now, people would likely already be seeing a rash.”
In the end, Brown says they are still learning about how the pollution might behave in the environment, especially as they know it is very different from PFAS.
“It is toxic through every exposure pathway—breathing, contact, or ingestion,” Brown said. “It is nasty stuff, the Erin Brockovich chemical. That said, it does break down with exposure to air or aerated water. The uncertainty relates to how much was released, how fast the plume will move, and how fast it will break down in the river. It is also heavier than water, which causes it to move slowly.”
Further details can be found on the HRWC’s page about the contamination:
Meanwhile, test results from nine surface water samples taken Wednesday downstream of the release site showed no detectable presence of the contaminant. That’s according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). Two tests taken Tuesday also detected no presence of the chemical. Surface water samples are taken within the first six to 12 inches of the surface of the water.
A “do not contact” recommendation remains in effect as continued testing along the river system and in the Wixom wastewater treatment facility takes place Thursday.