Originally posted on MLive by Malachi Barrett on July 17, 2018.
KALAMAZOO, MI — Contamination from a shuttered electro-plating company was well-known in Richland Township in the 1980s and 90s, but recent tests showing PFAS compounds in nearby drinking water wells present a new environmental threat from the state-owned site.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality tested four residential wells and one commercial well near the former Production Plated Plastics property at the intersection of D Avenue and 34th Street, on June 27. Results were received by DEQ officials on July 6, and showed per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, appearing at levels several times above the 70 parts-per-trillion EPA health advisory for drinking water.
The most contaminated well had PFAS levels at almost 16 times greater than the EPA health advisory level. A sample collected at the site on April 13 found 8,000 ppt of PFOS — one of many PFAS chemicals — being discharged.
Owners of the homes where tests showed elevated levels of PFAS were given bottled water by the DEQ the same day the results were received, department spokesperson Scott Dean said.
In an email, Dean said the DEQ targeted wells to the east of the Production Plated Plastics Site “given the fact that groundwater flow tends to go in that direction.”
Until recently, the groundwater discharge from the site had never been tested for PFAS, Dean said. PFAS had not been identified as a chemical of concern there, he said.
Richland Township Supervisor Lysanne Harma said management of the site was left to the state. It’s not a township responsibility, she said Monday, though the board of trustees is intermittently updated on cleanup efforts.
Harma said she had not heard concerns from residents about contamination from the site before the recent tests.
DEQ samples at the four homes tested contained 143 ppt, 696 ppt, 986 ppt and 1,116 ppt of PFOS and PFOA.
After the high levels of contamination were found, a second round of testing started July 10. Twenty-four residential wells will be tested, according to the DEQ.
Results from those tests should be available in three weeks, Dean said. Meanwhile, residents may learn more at a public meeting hosted by the DEQ on Wednesday, July 18.
Township officials are directing residents to contact the DEQ’s environmental assistance center at 1-800-662-9278.
History of contamination
Established in 1969, Production Plated Plastics engaged in molding, electroplating, and painting of plastic automobile parts at its Richland facility. It was one of eight plastics factories owned by parent company Detroit Plastic Molding Co.
The factory made chrome-plated plastic trim for automobiles. In its prime, the plant employed 400 people, but those products became far less popular by the late 1980s.
The company transitioned to making small molded parts for computer cabinets but went out of business by 1989.
Issues at the site span decades, resulting in several lawsuits brought by various state agencies until it closed.
Manufacturing processes at the site involved the creation, discharge and storage of hazardous wastes, according to court documents.
The company had a permit to discharge heavy metals under the Water Resources Act, and was allowed to discharge hexavalent chromium, copper and nickel wastes.
In 1977, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources sued the company after chromium contamination was found in nearby groundwater. The source was believed to be two lagoons near the plant, where chromium-laden water was allowed to accumulate and seep into the groundwater.
Six private wells were contaminated and ordered shut. Twenty-two Richland residents were tested for chromium contamination, but low levels were found in blood and urine samples.
The state’s attorney general asked Kalamazoo County Circuit Court to shut the plant down.
The court entered a consent order in 1978, which required the company to remove sludge and install purge wells.
In 1980, Production Plated Plastics provided the EPA a list of 5,955 tons of hazardous wastes generated, treated, stored and disposed of at the Richland facility. It also applied for a hazardous waste permit through the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
The same year, it was identified in a congressional report as an imminent threat to the local groundwater supply. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and company officials disputed the accuracy of the report at the time.
A Kalamazoo Circuit Court judge ordered the factory to increase the amount of contaminated sludge being hauled from the plant each month. Stockpiled sludge was stored above-ground in a sealed plastic cover.
A few years later, the state granted Production Plated Plastics $250,000 to implement a better method of cleaning up contamination. Pre-treated wastewater was being dumped into lagoons at the site for years.
In 1986, the company began pumping tainted groundwater from wells at the site. Water was purged of chromium and dumped into the Gull Lake sewer system, which ultimately directs wastewater into the city of Kalamazoo’s system.
At one point, the company considered pumping treated water into a stream leaving Gull Lake, which empties into the Kalamazoo River and Lake Michigan. This was vehemently opposed by area residents.
Closure and cleanup
Kalamazoo Public Services Director James Baker said “major investments” were made in the city’s wastewater system to treat heavy metals. It has served to the economic good of the county, he said.
“Because of this treatment plant, were able to have success in manufacturing and the industries we have,” Baker said.
In the late 1980s, Production Plated Plastics began to struggle.
It was unable to meet financial requirements of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and lost its permit, but continued operating its hazardous waste management program until 1987.
A closure plan estimating the total cost of closure at $2.3 million was eventually approved by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in 1988.
In 1990, a federal judge ruled that Production Plated Plastics had illegally operated a hazardous waste facility in Richland.
A revised closure plan estimated the cleanup would now cost $2.4 million.
In 1992, the company was ordered by a federal judge to pay $1.5 million in fines for failing to clean up soil and groundwater contamination. The electro-plating company was ordered to close its Richland Township facility and pay for environmental cleanup at the site.
In 1997, Production Plated Plastics successfully appealed a lawsuit from Michigan Mutual Insurance Company seeking damages from chromium contamination of groundwater at the facility in connection to a 1983 spill.
When Production Plated Plastics went bankrupt, the state took possession of the site. The state has retained ownership ever since due to the site’s environmental issues.
The state operates a groundwater pumping system at the site meant to prevent groundwater contaminated with chromium VI, nickel and volatile compounds from migrating offsite. Pumps discharge directly into the sanitary sewer system that flows back to the city of Kalamazoo’s wastewater treatment plant.
That discharge is where local officials identified ongoing PFAS contamination, spurring new state action at the site and the upcoming community meeting.
There was no indication that PFAS was a concern at the site until the state asked municipal wastewater systems to investigate potential sources of PFAS.
Emerging PFAS threat
Dean said the discovery of PFAS in Richland Township well water is a result of the state’s new focus on the emerging contaminant.
“This is showing our proactive approach to rooting out PFAS wherever it occurs is bearing fruit,” Dean said.
A third-party study commissioned by the city of Kalamazoo found 20 industrial sites were dumping the contaminants into its wastewater system, but the largest levels were found in wastewater coming from the Production Plastics site.
Samples were collected at 38 locations from the 34 industrial users between April 11-18. Reports by Pace Analytical were finished on June 11-12.
Per the city’s request, the DEQ ceased discharge from the former Production Plated Plastics site on June 21, Dean said.
Though cleanup at the site has been going on for decades, Dean said the end of remediation efforts isn’t in sight.
Meanwhile, the city of Kalamazoo provides drinking water to Richland Township.
Baker said officials are determining whether the property owners can drill a deeper well or connect to city water.
Kalamazoo County Drain Commissioner Pat Crowley, a township resident, said the water system was expanded due to known contamination at the Production Plated Plastics site.
Baker said 99 wells that provide drinking water to area were tested for PFAS by the DEQ on June 22. Results of the tests were not shared with the city as of July 16.
The wells referenced are water sources for the city’s municipal water system.
Levels of six perfluorinated compounds were found to be negligible when Kalamazoo’s water source stations were tested for PFAS in 2013.
The EPA required all public water systems to test for PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act. There is no official maximum standard set for PFAS in drinking water, but the EPA monitors unregulated contaminants every five years.
WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I’VE BEEN EXPOSED TO PERFLUOROALKYL SUBSTANCES (PFAS/PFOS)?
If you’ve been exposed to water contaminated by these chemicals, you may have a claim against the responsible party for damages to your property or for increased health risks. We are here to help and want to hear your story. We can be reached by phone at 303-861-8800, or by filling out the contact form below.