Michigan businesses are discharging high levels of PFAS that move into the state’s waterways on a daily basis.
An MLive investigation found that manufacturing sources are sending one version of the “forever chemicals” at up to 20,000 times the allowed amount into wastewater systems that discharge it into the state’s lakes, rivers and, ultimately, threatening drinking water supplies for millions of people.
That comes as much of the state’s focus for PFAS has been on former factories, military bases and fire-fighting foam – along with testing municipal drinking water sources around the state.
Dozens of documents obtained by MLive using the Freedom of Information Act show that state officials found 18 municipal wastewater treatment plants discharging excessive levels of PFOS. The chemical is one type of toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that is prevalent in industry and the one with the most rigorous cleanup standard.
The investigation offers the first glimpse into quantifying how much PFOS is moving in high concentrations from dozens of manufacturers across the state into the wastewater plants, none of which can filter out the stubbornly robust chemicals.
As a result, the inflow is putting numerous plants in violation of state law and threatening the environment and public health.
Many of the businesses are plating companies that make chrome parts for the auto industry.
“We haven’t used it in almost six years,” Lacks Enterprises CEO Nick Hrynyk said of PFOS. “But it’s still there because it just clings.”
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, after “failed attempt at cleaning,” according to the city. After a year of effort to reduce the contamination, at least 17 lab tests in September showed a range of 9.5-ppt to 270-ppt.
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. The company is one of 11 industrial PFOS polluters identified so far by GLWA, the state’s largest wastewater treatment facility.
Those situations and more raise questions about how Michigan and its industry are controlling PFOS. Unclear so far is when the manufacturers will see their discharges reach acceptable levels.
“When companies are directly impacting downstream water and impacting health, I think the onus is on them to take action as fast as possible to stop ongoing contamination,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Work Group.
“They may have been doing it for decades,” Andrews said. “But once it’s known, it doesn’t make it right to continue indefinitely.”
While state officials recognize the high levels of PFOS, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality also tells polluters and local officials that “it may take time” to stem or halt the flow into the waterways once officials confirm the contamination.
Officials say their moves to reduce the pollution are taking place “without causing a whole lot of extra regulatory oversight,” said Teresa Seidel, director of the Water Resources Division of MDEQ.
Violating a standard
There are few regulations to stop the spread of PFAS, either from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or from the state.
But Michigan’s rule for water quality – specifically limiting PFOS to 12-ppt — is one of them.
That rule was enacted in 2014 because of the chemical’s toxicity in the food chain: It bioaccumulates in fish, meaning the small amounts remain in a fish for a long time, creating a public health hazard. More recently, concerns about PFOS and PFOA in drinking water escalated, prompting scrutiny of contaminants in Michigan’s surface water – such as the Huron River, Lake St. Clair and Lake Michigan – used as sources of drinking water for millions of the state’s residents.
In humans, exposure to PFAS has been linked in epidemiological studies to some cancers, thyroid disorders, low birth weights, elevated cholesterol and other chronic diseases.
Today, the state is publicly reporting on testing for PFAS in all public drinking water systems and school water sources. And it’s acting with urgency to find a replacement source when the combined total of PFOS and PFOA exceed 70-ppt.
In February, state officials also began testing 93 wastewater treatment plants with an Industrial Pretreatment Program for commercial customers sending their discharge into the systems.
The DEQ has quietly been compiling results all year.
The MLive investigation found that 16 of the 93 wastewater plants received written orders over the past year to reduce industrial sources of PFOS found in their discharges. Two more – Belding and Marquette – were above limits due to a landfill and closed military installation, respectively.
The tests prioritized PFOS and PFOA, the two deemed dangerous enough for public health advisories. Another 22 types of PFAS are among the tests, but none of them face any federal or state regulation yet, no matter how high the results.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, MLive obtained documents from the treatment plants that show the sources of the contamination in each of the communities that are in violation.
Those documents show:
- At least 130 businesses have been considered as potential sources of PFAS. So far, four dozen have a PFOS reading above non-detect. Dozens more are still awaiting test results in the largest treatment plants.
- In some communities where testing was done before the statewide initiative, more than a year elapsed between high-PFOS test results and the violation letters indicating state scrutiny.
- The highest recorded level in Michigan comes from Bronson Plating, which sent 240,000-ppt of PFOS to the Bronson wastewater plant, located about 25 miles south of Battle Creek. The plant discharges into Swan Creek, which eventually flows to the St. Joseph River and Lake Michigan.
- The amount flowing into wastewater systems also includes high levels of other PFAS-family chemicals beyond the PFOS that is causing the plants to be in violation. For example, in Ionia where the municipal treatment plant is in violation, auto-parts maker Ventra is sending 2,300 parts per trillion of PFOS to the wastewater treatment plant. In addition, test results show the business is discharging 200,000-ppt of additional PFAS chemicals. The Ionia treatment plant’s effluent discharges into the Grand River.
The numbers raise concerns among Michigan’s environmental advocates.
“(Levels that high) could take years to move through the system, and could cause significant public health impacts during that time,” said James Clift, policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council.
While the goal of the program was to identify the PFOS, it’s now advancing further. Seidel said regulations preventing “pass-through contaminants” from industrial customers allow the enforcement of PFOS limits under National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits and the state is working with the treatment plants to stop the contamination both in their discharges and what’s coming from the manufacturers into their facilities.
But as Michigan heads toward the end of the first year of its testing plan, not one known high-level polluter reduced its PFOS discharge to target levels.
“I think of the manufacturers as the key point of entry in terms of managing PFAS and other contaminants,” said Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association.
“You don’t have to use a chemical. You can put controls on how it’s used and how it’s discharged in wastewater streams … Those are all easier to do rather than treat or dilute once it’s in the environment.”
‘Need to make it stop’
The MDEQ expects to see ongoing progress after a polluter is identified, but what that means remains an open question.
“We want to see reasonable progress, reasonable growth, reasonable improvement in the system,” Seidel said, “and we’re seeing that from everyone we’ve asked to step forward and work on this.”
That’s not the kind of answer that environmental experts like to hear.
“Now that they’re aware of it, they need to make it stop as soon as possible,” Andrews said.
Clift agreed. While he said Michigan’s extensive testing is exemplary in the U.S., “We think the state has to become much more protective of the public when it comes to these exposures.”
Municipalities running the wastewater treatment plants become the primary enforcer of state law as high levels of PFOS are found. Some communities have moved to formalize the steps expected from industrial sources of the contaminant.
Lapeer found its wastewater plant was discharging PFOS at 2,000-ppt in July 2017, as the investigation there took shape. By early 2018, it said that it would terminate Lapeer Plating and Plastic’s wastewater access if it didn’t come into compliance, a move that state officials didn’t support.
“Our program is to get to the core of the problem,” said Jon Russell of the MDEQ and manager of the industrial program testing. “We are not trying to force people to cut people off at their wastewater.”
The company, he said, “has spent a lot of money, but they’ve made a lot of progress.”
Other companies with high levels of PFOS are facing more recent orders. Wixom, for example, issued an administrative order to auto supplier Tribar Manufacturing, formerly Adept Plastic Finishing, in September, three months after testing showed the wastewater treatment plant effluent at 290-ppt. The company, which had a PFOS total of 28,000-ppt, now faces monthly monitoring and set up a temporary filter system as it planned a permanent version.
In Bronson, city officials told Bronson Plating in October that it faced scrutiny over its wastewater after five tests from May through September showed PFOS coming into the plant at concentrations of 12,000- to 240,000-ppt. The concentrations discharging from the plant ranged from 87- to 250-ppt. The city urged the company to hire a consultant and said the company must pay for additional testing, as city officials monitor progress toward 12-ppt. In the meantime, the state awaits results from PFAS tests in fish from Branch County to gauge the spread of the chemical into the environment.
The company told Bronson officials in a letter that it’s trying to resolve the PFOS problem.
“(T)his has been a somewhat overwhelming development for a small company such as ours,” wrote Toby Welch, president of the third-generation family company. “We have and will continue to devote the necessary time and resources to come up with a reasonable solution.”
Working with companies over time makes sense, said Mike Lunn of the Grand Rapids wastewater plant, noting PFOS chemicals weren’t illegal when used. And continued progress toward meeting a limit eventually should result in the goal of reducing the amount coming into plants.
“It goes a longer way toward solving it,” Lunn said. That may be important if the metrics change and more now-allowed PFAS chemicals are added to surface water standards – or if the EPA declares PFAS a toxic class of chemicals.
In the meantime, the companies found with PFOS largely keep a low profile as they determine their actions. Diamond Plating in Howell declined to comment when news came out about that city’s effluent reaching 130-ppt of PFOS. DCI Aerotech in Detroit also declined to comment.
Ventra, a division of Flex N Gate, is still investigating which “of the various waste water streams are the main contributors so we can address the hot spots,” according to a spokesman. PFOS from its plant in Ionia reached 2,300-ppt, contributing to the treatment plant sending 280- to 430-ppt of PFOS into the Grand River in May and June, respectively.
Each of the companies that test high for PFOS in their wastewater have one thing in common: The state is not disclosing their findings on general audience web pages or in news releases, except for Lapeer Plating and Plastics.
As a result, while the cleanups move into 2019, the public doesn’t know they’re taking place at all – unless they search for specific test results on the MIWATERS document portal managed by the DEQ.
This opaque approach contrasts to the drinking water test disclosures charted and updated regularly on the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) website, to which state officials point the public for information.
“We are very concerned about the lack of transparency,” Clift said. “The state has been very transparent when testing public water supplies and schools. However, you don’t see any results of testing of manufacturers.”
Focus on the platers
The source of most of the PFOS in the documents examined by MLive is the surface finishing industry. 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.
Michigan’s platers once had been told to add a surfactant, or chemical that would form a vapor barrier to keep employees from breathing the cancer-causing hexavalent chromium rising from their tanks. That’s how PFOS entered their operations – but by 2010, the EPA sought to rid their electroplating baths of PFOS, and by 2015 no company in the United State was supposed to be using chemicals containing that compound. The EPA now has penalties in place for PFOS if it is found to still be in use.
Neither the National Association of Surface Finishers nor its Michigan chapter commented for this story. But at least 75 of Michigan platers are represented by the Michigan Manufacturers Association and participate in a monthly meeting about PFAS as they confront what Michigan’s test results mean to their businesses.
“For us, it’s like drinking water out of a 5-inch fire hose,” said Andy Such, lobbyist for the MMA and leader of the PFAS group. “It’s coming at us really fast. My companies want to know what they need to do to comply.”
The companies affected, the municipalities and the state turn back to the example in Lapeer as they determine action. That’s where Michigan’s first large-scale industrial PFOS contamination was traced to water sampling from the Flint River.
Dean Harlow became CEO of Lapeer Plating & Plastics in October 2017, three years after the company voluntarily stopped using chemicals containing PFOS in production lines. Harlow started an aggressive charge to reduce PFOS in the plant’s discharge. That effort cost about $2 million and included the replacement of dozens of tanks.
Harlow recognizes his position, but he doesn’t relish it.
“I don’t want to be an example of anything,” Harlow said. “I just want to make good parts for my customers. I didn’t come here to be involved in PFAS.”
He continued: “We’re just trying to fix a problem and remain compliant.”
Testing shows the PFOS levels from the company bounce from compliant – like 7.3-ppt at one point in July – to exceeding, prompting another warning from the city this fall. If Lapeer is the first of many examples, it’s also showing the challenge of removing residual PFOS from a factory, sewer lines and a treatment plant.
The state now is working with larger systems that have multiple affected manufacturers. Eleven active business sites are so far identified as sending PFOS at levels above 12 ppt into the Grand Rapids system, which learned this fall that its effluent — at 60-ppt of PFOS on one test, and 200-ppt on a second — is well above the state’s limit.
The highest level in Grand Rapids originates at Master Finish Co. A test in September showed the company’s wastewater heading to the treatment plan was 34,020-ppt, or 2,835 times the PFOS allowed in a Michigan river.
That is followed by 12,000-ppt at one of five Lacks Enterprises locations above 12-ppt. The treatment plant received discharges at a combined 55,000-ppt from the 11 sites exceeding the state limit for PFOS.
Master Finish CEO Aaron Mulder said the company began to invest in developing alternatives to PFOS in 2009, years before the EPA required that of platers. It also tries to exceed environmental requirements, he said, and plans to do that now.
“We will work with the city and fully comply with its requirements,” Mulder said in an email.
Hrynyk says his Grand Rapids-based company will do the same. A consultant is exploring how a new filtration device at the end of its in-house treatment system may reduce PFOS.
The Lacks factory on Monroe Avenue is where the company’s highest PFOS reading took place. It’s also recently renovated – and ready to resume plastic plating. It will serve as the primary test site for how the new equipment works.
The problem is not limited to platers. In Ferndale, just north of Detroit, a MacDermid Enthone chemical factory with products that once included PFOS also is sending that chemical into Michigan’s water. On Aug. 27, water was pulled twice from the MacDermid effluent heading into the GLWA system: Results showed readings of 840-ppt of PFAS; the duplicate showed 1,600-ppt. A company spokesperson said the company is working with the DEQ and GLWA “to take any steps needed.”
The problem also doesn’t end with the 16 wastewater treatment plants with industrial sources in violation of PFOS limits. At least an additional dozen wastewater treatment plants show active business customers with high levels of PFOS that have caught the state’s attention.
Searching for solutions
Unclear is how much industrial contamination from PFOS in Michigan still may be discovered.
In St. Joseph, for example, the director of that southwestern Michigan community’s wastewater facility says effluent testing by early December will include five of its industrial customers, with results expected in 2019.
Oakland County’s Water Resources Division runs a wastewater treatment plant in Pontiac, where effluent contained 9-ppt of PFOS in October 2017, and total PFAS was 100 ppt. It told the state in July that it doesn’t believe any of nine industrial customers on its list of “potential and probable” PFAS sources would be found with the chemicals in their wastewater, but had no confirmation in mid-November.
Testing also continues with more customers in Grand Rapids and GLWA, which serves 3.9 million customers in Metro Detroit and has more than 270 industrial wastewater customers. As of mid-September, GLWA showed 21 customers “that affirmed prior usage of PFAS substances,” according to a letter from the DEQ. Among industrial sources, testing shows 12,570-ppt of combined PFOS.
So far, 54 companies — including one plater and at least two chemical companies — still hadn’t responded as GLWA seeks details on PFAS chemical use in their facilities.
And while the testing continues to chart PFOS and PFOA, no movement is taking place in Michigan to add any other PFAS chemicals to surface water or groundwater cleanup standards, though the state’s PFAS Science Board will issue a report in coming weeks that could call for changes.
Questions about that emerge as wastewater plant testing and the discharge from companies like Lacks, Ventra, Master Finish show very high levels of other, lesser known PFAS compounds besides PFOS. For example, 95 percent of the 15,700-ppt total PFAS flowing out of the Ionia wastewater plant into the Grand River in May was a compound called 6:2 FTS, a fluorotelomer sulfonate that many platers began using instead of PFOS.
The state still is looking to the EPA for national guidelines on the full range of PFAS chemicals, something that environmental activists also want. It’s also important “so (the state’s tests are) not putting Michigan at a disadvantage against other states for economic growth and development, and will still be protective of the environment,” Seidel said.
Each community treatment plant, meanwhile, was advised by the state to set its own local limits for PFOS – something that no community has yet done. The state also is starting to test biosolids, the other byproduct of wastewater treatment systems.
Hrynyk said the emphasis on PFOS is pressuring the plating industry, which competes with businesses in other countries where regulations for the chemicals don’t exist. Platers face uncertainties about how far PFAS regulation will extend in coming years, and they also already spend millions on controlling air emissions, water emissions and chemical monitoring.
The industry faces a burden to find alternatives, yet reducing the chemical in wastewater, he said, “is in everyone’s interest.”
Hrynyk said he believes Michigan is doing the right thing by identifying industrial sources of PFAS and eliminating them.
“Someone has to be a leader,” he said. “And there’s a cost to being a leader.”
*Original article online at https://www.mlive.com/news/2018/11/businesses_discharging_pfas_in.html