Auto Parts Supplier Ignored 460 Alarms in 3 Hours as Hazardous Chemical Flooded Waterways

Tribar Manufacturing dumped hexavalent chromium, a known cancer causing substance, into popular waterways at the height of summer.

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Reporters for WDIV local 4 telling parents about the spill. The parents immediately dragged their kids out of the potentially toxic water.
Reporters for WDIV local 4 telling parents about the spill. The parents immediately dragged their kids out of the potentially toxic water.
Screenshot: WDIV/YouTube

A major auto parts supplier dumped thousands of gallons of water contaminated with a cancer-causing chemical, which poisoned some of the most popular waterways in Metro Detroit at the height of the summer swimming season.

Tribar Manufacturing in the Detroit suburb of Wixom, Michigan, supplies parts to big names like Ford, Toyota, GM and Rivian. The company sends its waste water to the Wixom wastewater treatment plant which then sends treated water into the Huron River. The river then feeds water tables as well as the countless lakes, creeks and ponds that dot the heavily populated region.

During the weekend of July 29, Tribar overwhelmed the Wixom treatment plant with thousands of gallons of waste water tainted with hexavalent chromium. Used in electro plating and other industries like wood preservation and tanning, hexavalent chromium is a highly toxic, cancer-causing chemical. It’s the same one Erin Brockovich rallied against in the ‘90s. According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Hexavalent chromium can cause “...nasal and sinus cancers, kidney and liver damage, nasal and skin irritation and ulceration, and eye irritation and damage.

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There were plenty of warnings the chemical would be entering the Huron River — 460 alarms in three hours, in fact — but a Tribar employee simply overrode the alarms as 10,000 gallons of contaminated water overwhelmed the treatment plant and flooded into the Huron River. The company then took four days to report the spill. Now the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is demanding answers, according to MLive:

Between 4:59 and 7:46 p.m. on July 29, the tank operator overrode the waste treatment alarms 460 times, or about once every 20 seconds, according to the notice. Another “high level” alarm was recorded at 11 p.m.

How and why that occurred is unclear. EGLE says the company has not been fully forthcoming with its investigation, which involves the state’s criminal environmental investigative arm.

Tribar did not report the release until Monday, Aug. 1, when employee Ryan O’Keefe made an 8 a.m. state Pollution Emergency Alert System (PEAS) report attributing the release to “operator error.”

“Why was a wastewater operator in the facility, unsupervised, during the weekend?” asked Teresa Seidel, director of EGLE’s water resources division, in the letter. “To whom did the operator who overrode the alarms report to during this time?”

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Tribar received an “egregious” violation requiring accelerated enforcement notice from EGLE and the state issued a no-contact advisory for communities downriver from Wixom. The advisory covers some of the most popular, free-to-the public watering holes and swimming beaches in the metro area, at the height of summer. Some residents clearly hadn’t heard about the spill, as WDIV 4 News reporters had to warn parents who took their kids out for a swim on a warm summer day:

Chemical spill on Huron River sparks warnings due to contamination

EGLE says Tribar has not cooperated in its investigation of the spill. That may be because the company has not maintained proper documentation of its pollutants despite being flagged in the past for infractions. From MLive:

The company failed to immediately notify EGLE about the discharge, interfered with a city’s wastewater treatment and failed to maintain a pollution prevention plan, EGLE says.

The citations follow unrelated violation notices from the agency’s air quality division following a July inspection, which found the company was not keeping adequate records and was not properly operating equipment which controls nickel and chromium emissions.

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This isn’t even the first time Tribar has poisoned the waterways. The company was mainly responsible for releasing an “astronomical” amount of PFAS into the water, leading to a years-long, perhaps permanent “do not eat” order on fish caught in waterways fed by the Huron River.

Residents everywhere from the small farming community of Milford all the way to the city of Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, are calling on the state to shutter Tribar Manufacturing. U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell is also involved, calling on the Environmental Protection Agency to assist the state in fining the company and cleaning up the contaminant, the Detroit News reports:

In her letter, Dingell asked the EPA’s Shore a series of questions, including whether the agency could provide additional resources to the spill response, whether it had taken enforcement actions against the company, whether it was notified about the spill and about treatment options and the EPA’s involvement to date.

“There is growing alarm and uncertainty from downstream residents and across southeast Michigan in the aftermath of this disturbing release by Tribar Technologies Inc.,” she wrote. “Therefore, it is critical, moving forward, for EPA to be directly involved in this emergency response and to ensure all responsible parties are held accountable.”

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The EGLE has been busy collecting hundreds of samples from affected waterways, with only a few coming up positive for dangerous concentrations of hexavalent chromium. The chemical, however, is not easily removed from waterways. A “forever chemical” hexavalent chromium must be physically removed by hauling away contaminated soil and water or treating water to turn the hexavalent chromium into the less toxic (though more expensive) trivalent version.

For its part, the Huron River Watershed Council has signed on to a petition along with other reputable environmental groups to ask auto manufacturers to eliminate the use of hexavalent chromium in their manufacturing. A no contact order remains in affect for all those living north of the Wixom water treatment plant. The chemical could begin moving up the river over the next few weeks to Ann Arbor, where the river is the main source of drinking water for residents.