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Environmental watchdogs, researchers urge caution with new and legacy threats of contamination

Huron River chemical spill
Posted at 12:56 PM, Aug 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-05 18:38:07-04

WIXOM, Mich. (WXYZ)  — While there are thousands of known sites of contamination across the country from hazardous waste dumped or not properly secured by manufacturing facilities and landfills, the ones government officials consider the most dangerous are called Superfund sites.

A site being labeled as a Superfund allows the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to force the person or company responsible for the contamination to clean it up or reimburse the government for doing it for them.

Warning issued for residents after chemical spill in Huron River

Currently, there are over 1,888 Superfund sites in the country. In Michigan, there are 90.

Some of the Superfund sites could be worsened by improper containment or even climate change.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) was tasked by Congress to investigate how the toxic sites are being contained and safeguarded to ensure they don't spread.

"If you have massive flooding, the question is, is it possible for the flood to dislocate a containment cap, for example, that then allows the contamination to spread," said Alfredo Gomez, Director of the Natural Resources and Environment team of the U.S. GAO.

Federal data suggests about 60 percent of Superfund sites overseen by EPA are in areas that may be impacted by wildfires and different types of flooding — natural hazards that may be exacerbated by climate change.

The GAO reported that the EPA has taken steps to manage risks at the sites. They also recommend site-level decision making to protect people and the environment.

"Protection of our health is not a game," said Lisa Wozniak, Executive Director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.

Wozniak has long been suspicious of the safety methods used by Tribar Manufacturing.

This week it was revealed that Tribar released highly toxic hexavalent chromium into the Wixom Sewage Treatment facility, sparking warnings and restrictions along the Huron River.

"There needs to be much more pulling the dark curtains away from these companies and seeing exactly what's going on in each and every facility," said Wozniak.

Tribar has also had problems with PFAS.

According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Services, "PFAS are a large, complex group of manufactured chemicals that are ingredients in various everyday products. For example, they are used to keep food from sticking to packaging or cookware, make clothes and carpets resistant to stains, and create firefighting foam that is more effective. PFAS are used in industries such as aerospace, automotive, construction, and electronics."

Tribar Manufacturing received past violations for PFAS, Air Quality concerns

"PFAS is everywhere. There is no way to completely avoid PFAS exposure," said University of Michigan's Sung Kyun Park, a professor of Epidemiology and Environmental Health Sciences at the School of Public Health.

Park said PFAS is used in everyday items we use including food wrappings at fast food restaurants that prevent grease markings. And he warns that high concentrations of PFAS can put middle-aged women at an increased risk for diabetes.

“It is important for clinicians to be aware of PFAS as an unrecognized risk factor for diabetes and to be prepared to counsel patients in terms of sources of exposure and potential health effects," Park said in The University of Michigan News.

UM researchers also discovered that increased levels of PFAS in the blood could lead to early menopause.

“Even menopause a few years earlier than usual could have a significant impact on cardiovascular health, bone health and quality of life, and overall health in general among women,” said Park.

Park said PFAS can stay in the body for years and even very low levels of exposure in the general population could affect someone's health including liver damage.

Wozniak said she is encouraged by the increased efforts of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) to go after companies that create toxic hazards.

"We need to make sure that the laws protecting human health and the environment are enforced. And this (EGLE) is the agency that can do it and should do it," she said. "We need larger penalties for bad actors. People who break the law, which is basically what's happening here," she said referring to Tribar.

Wozniak added that state lawmakers should not be partial to protecting the pocketbooks of companies in their own districts.

She said, "There must be assurances that they have the money to cover the costs should there be any kind of spill on their watch."