Detroiters and suburbanites unite in protest over Huron River toxic spill

Tiffany Stewart moved to Milford from Livonia 15 years ago to be closer to nature. She wanted to live in a place where “observing nature within nature wasn’t a rare experience but an everyday occurrence.” 

“We have that here, or we had that here. Now, we’re not allowed to have contact with the water, and who knows when we will be able to again,” Stewart said during a Thursday press conference. “All because of negligence on behalf of Tribar Technologies, which has released toxins into our water for the second time in four years.” 

Tiffany Stewart speaks at the Aug. 10 protest of Tribar Technologies after the company spilled thousands of gallons of hexavalent chromium into the Huron River. Photo by Angela Lugo-Thomas.

Stewart was one of the speakers at a press conference and protest held at Heavner Canoe & Kayak Rental in Milford on Wednesday in response to a chemical spill in the Huron River on July 29, prompting a no-contact advisory from the Michigan Department of Environment and Great Lakes.

The company in Wixom released several thousand gallons of hexavalent chromium into Wixom’s wastewater treatment facility – a highly toxic chemical that can cause cancer and other serious health issues. It also poses a threat to wildlife and is illegal in Europe. EGLE investigators allege staff overrode an alarm 460 times and were slow to report the incident to authorities.

This wasn’t the first incident of water contamination by the company in recent memory. In 2018, the company was cited by EGLE for releasing PFAS into the Huron River, resulting in a Do Not Eat fish consumption advisory for most species downstream of the plant.

Rebecca Esselman, the executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council (HRWC) told Planet Detroit that the watershed council is advocating that the use of hexchrome be eliminated for all non-essential uses, including Tribar’s plating of parts for the auto industry. 

“As long as this chemical is still in use, there remains a risk to public health, nature and local economies,” Esselman said. “We want to see public commitments from automakers to stop purchasing products created using hexchrome or in plants that still employ the use of this chemical. It is critical to maintaining the health and wellbeing of residents in southeast Michigan.”

Although their business and the waterways their customers use are outside of the affected area, third-generation Heavner Canoe & Kayak Rental owners lamented losing 70% of their business since the no-contact recommendation was issued last week. 

Bruce Heavner told the crowd that he has fond memories of the Huron River and hopes to add more memories with his kids and beyond. 

“When people can’t come out and enjoy the beautiful river because of a state-mandated order, that mission is at risk,” he said. “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, the fish, the birds, the turtles and other animals that call our river home and use it for a water source.”

Antonio Cosme, a co-founder of Black to the Land Coalition, which works to provide opportunities for people of color to get outdoors, said the spill disproportionately impacts marginalized people who have fewer resources to travel to northern Michigan and who rely on the Huron River as a high-quality natural area close to home.

Erin PJ Bevel (left) and Antonio Cosme of the Black to the Land Coalition. Photo by Angela Lugo-Thomas.

“I was so incredibly enraged when I learned the same company that poisoned fish with PFAS in the Rouge River and the Huron River released the hex chrome in the Huron,” he told Planet Detroit.

Cosme and Black to the Land Coalition coordinate an annual ‘Browns, Blacks & Kayaks’ event that brings hundreds of Detroiters to the Huron River to recreate. Over 200 people of color, including many children, attended the event held at Proud Lake in July.

Opportunities for launching kayaks on public land in Detroit, where the group is based, is limited to Belle Isle, which “isn’t really even an option for an event like Browns, Blacks & Kayaks,” Black to the Land Coalition board member Erin PJ Bevel told Planet Detroit. “It makes our other local waterways even more important because the reality is that while they may not be geographically more accessible, they are more accessible in terms of usage.”

According to Esselman, the Huron River is a popular destination for residents of southeast Michigan, seeing 125,000 unique visitors each year. The economic value of the river is estimated to be $65 million annually–about the same revenue as a Big Ten home football season. The Huron is a designated State Water Trail and National Water Trail and is home to two state recreation areas and eight Metroparks, several of which are in Wayne County, providing Detroiters with access to land and water-based activities.

Although the Michigan Department of Environment and Great Lakes has issued violation notices to Tribar, Michigan taxpayers will end up footing the bill for any cleanup under current Michigan law.

State Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D-Ann Arbor) and State Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) are working to to change that. They aim to restore “polluter pay” laws that were eliminated in 1995 under former Governor John Engler. 

State Sen. Yousef Rabhi (D- Ann Arbor) speaks at the protest of Tribar Technologies on the Huron River.

A proposed bill first introduced by Rabhi in 2017 has not had a hearing scheduled. 

“Today in Michigan, we have over 24,000 contaminated sites across the state with more being added to that with each passing year,”  Sean McBrearty of Clean Water Action, told the crowd. “Last year, the Michigan Department of Environment and Great Lakes could only afford to address roughly 200 of those 24,000 sites. This is not a sustainable system. Far more funding is needed to clean up contaminated sites and waterways.” 

Dave Woodward, chair of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, stated, “we are going to put the full weight and political power of Oakland County behind the effort to pass polluter pay laws. 

“What happened here can never be allowed to happen again,” Woodward said. “It is not right for the taxpayers of this state to bear the costs to clean up the mess of a reckless and irresponsible company.”

Stewart agrees. “We pay, literally as taxpayers, we pay to clean up someone else’s mess.”

Milford resident Linda Suvak attended the protest. “It can’t happen again,” she said. “Everybody loves this river. We use it for recreation. We don’t need this risk anymore.”


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