Lawmakers, activists call for stronger pollution regulations following Huron River chemical spill

By: - August 10, 2022 4:25 pm

Sean McBrearty of Clean Water Action at the Huron River in Milford, Aug. 10, 2022 | Kyle Davidson

More than 100 people gathered on the banks of the Huron River in Milford Wednesday to call for action and accountability in the aftermath of a chemical spill into the river system. 

Representatives from Clean Water Action, the Environmental Council of Huron Valley stood alongside lawmakers, local officials, business owners and residents, demanding stronger polluter pay laws to ensure corporations are held responsible for chemical spills.

Over the weekend of July 29, Tribar Manufacturing in Wixom released a solution containing hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, into the city’s sewer system. The Wixom wastewater treatment facility discharges into Norton Creek, which flows into the Huron River. 

EGLE was notified of the spill in the afternoon of Aug. 1, with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) later issuing a no-contact recommendation with parts of the Huron River between North Wixom Road in Oakland County and Kensington Road in Livingston County. This includes Norton Creek, Hubbell Pond in Milford, and Kent Lake, which is accessible through Kensington Metropark. 

Bruce Heavner, co-owner of Heavner Canoe Rental, at the Huron River in Milford, Aug. 10, 2022 | Kyle Davidson

Bruce Heavner, co-owner of Heavner Canoe Rental, which hosted the event, said business has dropped 70% since the no-contact recommendation was issued. Despite the canoe launch not being impacted by the pollution, the third-generation family business has had their livelihood impacted. 

However, Heavner said the loss of business is not the most important concern.

“The more important thing, in our opinion, is the loss of experiences of kids, families, scout groups and school groups that come out year after year. Of wildlife, with fish or birds, the turtles and other animals in all our river home and use it for a water source. There’s a chemical in the river. What happens to them?” Heavner said. 

Just before the event began at noon, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) announced its water resources division issued violations to Tribar Technologies Inc. for failing to immediately notify EGLE of the spill upon discovery, sending unauthorized pollutants into the wastewater treatment facility in violation of the Michigan Natural Resources and Environmental Protections Act, and for its failure to maintain an updated pollution incident prevention plan.

The company will have until Aug. 20 to respond to the violations in writing, including answering questions about the circumstances of the spill, which EGLE says have not been adequately answered by the company. Due to the serious nature of the violations, EGLE has accelerated enforcement and will seek full cost recovery from Tribar.

In 2018, Tribar was tied to PFAS contamination in the Huron River, resulting in a “do not eat” advisory for fish caught in the river system, according to the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

“We’re not allowed to have contact with the water, and who knows when we’ll be able to again,” said Tiffany Stewart, co-founder of the Environmental Council for Huron Valley. 

Tiffany Stewart, co-founder of the Environmental Council for Huron Valley at the Huron River in Milford, Aug. 10, 2022 | Kyle Davidson

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Are we really going to wait and see what Tribar chooses to poison our river with a third time,” Stewart said.

This second spill in four years is the result of negligence and could potentially impact drinking water for residents downstream, Stewart said.

While EGLE has assured the spill should not have an effect on groundwater, the Huron River flows into Barton Pond, where the city of Ann Arbor has a drinking water intake. None of the 75 samples taken at this location detected hexavalent or total chromium.

On Monday, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Ann Arbor) sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5 Regional Administrator, Debra Shore, asking for the Agency to act on the spill. 

Michigan House Minority Leader Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) also appeared at the event alongside Felicia Brabec (D-Pittsfield Twp.), where he called for stronger polluter pay laws in Michigan. 

“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,” Rabhi said. “We should be suing them into oblivion. Using that money to clean our river, using that money to put new filtration systems in our city water treatment facility.”

From 1990 to 1995, Michigan had the strongest polluter pay law in the nation, according to Clean Water Action. Corporations responsible for contaminating natural resources were also responsible for cleaning up the contamination. The law was later gutted in 1995 under the administration of GOP former Michigan Gov. John Engler.

Since being elected in 2017, Rabhi introduced and reintroduced efforts to reinstate polluter pay. Rabhi’s most recent effort, H.B. 4314, was introduced in February 2021, and has stalled in the House Committee on Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation. 

Canoes on the banks of the Huron River in Milford, Aug. 10, 2022 | Kyle Davidson

Sean McBrearty, legislative and policy director for Clean Water Action, also advocated for revisiting the state’s seven year statute of limitation after a chemical spill saying the window is too narrow to hold companies accountable.

“Out of the 24,000 polluted sites that we have across the state. Roughly half of them are orphan sites where the state’s going to be responsible,” McBrearty said.

Passing polluter pay would help stop the bleeding at contaminated sites, allowing the state to address contamination current sites and hold corporations responsible for spills they cause afterwards, McBrearty said.

While the event also hosted a staffer from the office of U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly), audience members noted state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford) and state Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake), who represent citizens affected by the spill, were absent from the event. 


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Kyle Davidson
Kyle Davidson

Kyle Davidson was a reporting intern for the Michigan Advance. A recent MSU graduate, Kyle studied journalism and political science. He has reported on community events, breaking news, state policy, and the environment for outlets including the Lansing State Journal, the Detroit Free Press and Capital News Service.