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Investigation Finds Michigan Manufacturers Releasing Toxic Chemicals Into Water Daily

(Photo: Along the Huron River in Michigan. Credit: EllenM1, Flickr Creative Commons)

Michigan manufacturing businesses are sending high levels of industrial chemicals into the state’s waterways every day, an investigative report from MLive has found. One particular kind of toxic manmade chemical is entering local wastewater systems at as much as 20,000 times the legal limit.

The investigation by MLive journalists Paula Gardner and Garret Ellison involved poring through numerous documents obtained using the Freedom of Information Act. They learned that dozens of manufacturers across the state are releasing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in such high concentrations that municipal wastewater treatment plants can’t filter them out.

Documents showed that state officials discovered 18 wastewater treatment plants discharging excessive perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which the journalists describe as a type of PFAS prevalent in industry that has the most rigorous cleanup standard.

“The source of most of the PFOS in the documents examined by MLive is the surface finishing industry,” Gardner and Ellison wrote. “The manufacturers perform electroplating, with the ‘platers’ coating office furniture, medical devices, and metal pieces like gears and machine parts. Many apply the chrome-like trim to plastic components used by the auto industry.”

PFOS entered operations when platers in the state used to be advised to add a surfactant to form a vapor barrier that prevented employees from breathing in cancer-causing hexavalent chromium, the journalists explained. However, by 2015 companies in the US were supposed to have stopped using chemicals with PFOS under EPA rules that now carry penalties.

The chemical continues to linger long after usage stops, though. Plating company Lacks Enterprises makes chrome parts for the auto industry. CEO Nick Hrynyk told MLive that his company had not used PFOS in nearly six years, but that it still clings.

Examples of high levels of PFOS from the article:

  • In Grand Rapids, tests at six Lacks Enterprises facilities showed a combined 18,811 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFOS to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, which sends its outflow to the Grand River and, ultimately, Lake Michigan.
  • In Lapeer, Lapeer Plating sent 19,000-ppt of PFOS in July 2017 to the Lapeer wastewater plant, which sends its effluent to the Flint River, ultimately discharging to Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron. That number jumped to 34,000-ppt by October 2017.
  • In Detroit, DCI Aerotech Inc. sent 9,750-ppt to the Great Lakes Water Authority, which discharges to the Detroit River before it flows into Lake Erie.

“At least 130 businesses have been considered as potential sources of PFAS,” the journalists discovered. “So far, four dozen have a PFOS reading above non-detect. Dozens more are still awaiting test results in the largest treatment plants.”

To date 54 companies still had not responded to the state’s largest wastewater treatment facility, Great Lakes Water Authority, with details on PFAS chemical use in their facilities, MLive found.

James Clift, policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council, told the journalists that his organization is concerned about the lack of transparency over chemical releases. “The state has been very transparent when testing public water supplies and schools,” he said. “However, you don’t see any results of testing of manufacturers.”

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