The Federal Bureau of Investigation and local officials are investigating the recent release of dangerous chemicals into Michigan’s Huron River, a 130-mile-long waterway that is popular for fishing and recreation and supplies drinking water for more than 100,000 people in Ann Arbor as well as other south-eastern Michigan communities.
Then, despite alarms signaling the spill, a plant operator overrode the alarm 460 times in roughly three hours, according to the agency, failing to report the spill for more than two days.
The July event marks the second time in four years that Tribar has been blamed for releasing harmful chemicals into the water, and, critics say, is yet another example of how contamination from corporate polluters can endanger entire communities.
“It just shows gross negligence,” said Sean McBrearty, legislative and policy director of Clean Water Action.
On August 10, a group of about 150 area residents, advocates, and lawmakers gathered for a rally on the banks of Huron River to call for new legislation to punish polluters, such as Tribar.
“I want them sued into oblivion,” said state representative Yousef Rabhi. “Why should taxpayers have to pay to clean up the mess that some company made for profit? They benefited from the pollution that they put in our river. They made money off of our lives.”
Hexavalent chromium, also called chromium-6, is used in stainless steel production, electroplating and in the manufacturing of dyes, inks, and surface coatings and other products. Research has linked chromium compounds to lung cancer, liver damage, reproductive problems, and developmental harm.
The 2000 film Erin Brockovich brought chromium-6 to national attention, featuring the true-life tale of a legal assistant who discovered elevated rates of cancer and death among residents of Hinkley, California, were linked to the contaminant in their drinking water.
Tribar said in a statement that the worker responsible for overriding its alarm system resigned from the company the day the spill was reported. State water regulators issued violations and continue to press the company for answers, including why the employee was present at the plant when it wasn’t in production.
A spokesperson for the FBI did not specify the scope of its inquiry, but told the Detroit Free Press that the agency can become involved in an incident involving a chemical leak when there is potential criminal activity.
The battle to keep hexavalent chromium out of drinking water is an effort that spans the nation. An interactive map by the non-profit Environmental Working Group found chromium-6 in tap water serving 251 million people throughout the US, at levels scientists deem unsafe.
The day of the spill, Tribar discharged its waste into the local sewer system, where it traveled to the wastewater treatment plant and out to the river.
Testing indicates that chromium levels in the river are below levels of concern for effects on human health. Still, some may have settled in the river’s sediment and could later spread, said Jeff Gearhart, research director of the Ecology Center. While so far no samples from Ann Arbor have contained hexavalent chromium, Gearhart said it could take several weeks to a month for the contamination to reach the city.
“We’re still concerned about the ecological impact of whatever did make it into the river and need a better understanding of what impacts that may have to the watershed,” said Gearhart.
In 2018, Tribar was responsible for releasing waste containing harmful PFAS, or forever chemicals, into a nearby creek that feeds into the Huron River.
Because of that contamination, signs were posted along the waterway to warn visitors not to eat the fish from the river. After the more recent discharge signs were once again erected warning visitors not to come in contact with the water on certain stretches of the river. The Michigan department of health and human services lifted that warning last week after concluding there was no health threat.
“Our first reaction to the news was heartbreak and concern for public safety. But as we heard more and learned that Tribar was responsible – this polluter that had previously contaminated the entire river system with PFAS – that heartbreak morphed into anger,” said Daniel Brown, a watershed planner with the Huron River Watershed Council.
“The anger is palpable,” Brown added. “For those of us that have been following these issues, there is really a fury in knowing that we have weak environmental laws, weak water protections that allow this to happen, and that we have a repeat offender in Tribar.”
Bruce Heavner, owner of a canoe and kayak rental company in the area, recalled how he and staff rushed to retrieve paddlers from the river when news of the spill broke. Heavner said business has dropped by 70 percent since the “do not contact” recommendation was issued, but said it wasn’t the most important concern.
“Wildlife, the fish, the birds, the turtles and other animals that call our river home,” Heavner said. “If there’s a chemical in the river, what happens to them?”
The Ecology Center and environmental advocates in Michigan have issued an open letter calling on automakers to stop doing business with suppliers that use hexavalent chromium, including Tribar, arguing that the facilities endanger worker and environmental health and that safer alternatives are available and in use.
Michigan once had among the strongest water protections in the nation. But McBrearty of Clean Water Action, which helped organize the rally, said Michigan began to gut polluter pay laws in the 1990s, which has meant consequences for bad actors amount to a “slap on the wrist” and leaves taxpayers on the hook for cleanup.
“These companies don’t care about the health of the people that are exposed to these chemicals or the health of the river. If all you’re looking at is the financial bottom line, and it’s cheaper to pollute than it is to do things the right way, they’re going to keep polluting,” said McBrearty.