2018-04-15 / Front Page

‘Black cloud of PFOS’

Lapeer Plating gets 2 weeks to control contaminant
810-452-2609 • adietderich@mihomepaper.com

LAPEER — Lapeer Plating & Plastics faces being cut off from the City of Lapeer’s sewerage system in two weeks — unless it can demonstrate lowered levels of a cancer-causing contaminant traced to the company’s property.

Dean Harlow, CEO, Lapeer Plating & Plastics, said the company would effec- tively be shut down in the event of being cut off. It would have nowhere to send effluent wastewater, he said, resulting from Lapeer Plating’s use of about 75,000 gallons of water daily. The company’s plant is located on DeMille Road, between McCormick and Saginaw.

Further, Harlow said, the shutdown would have a ripple effect on the auto industry, as Lapeer Plating produces parts for automakers and their suppliers.

The problem? Perfluorooctanesulfonic sulfonic acid, or PFOS.

PFOS reportedly has adverse health effects. It’s been linked with cancer, delays in physical development, and more.

In Michigan, the Dept. of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) sets the amount of allowable PFOS at 12 parts per trillion (ppt) or less. One ppt equates to a single drop of food coloring in the equivalent of 40 Olympicsized swimming pools.

As recent as August 2017, tests showed 19,000 ppt of PFOS originating at Lapeer Plating.

Harlow said the company has spent about $1.5 million addressing the problem since October. Another $1 million is likely to be spent, he said.

Tests show the company has made great strides in reducing PFOS levels, but Harlow said there is still work to be done.

“This is a big issue for the company,” Harlow told The County Press. “We’re spending a ton of money on it.”

In a March 13 letter to MDEQ, Harlow said “The scope of the project continues to expand, and now threatens (the) viability (of) the company and its 368 employees.”

Despite such claims, Dale Kerbyson, city manager, Lapeer, said the city needs to take a tough stance on pushing Lapeer Plating to meet MDEQ requirements.

Among other things, he said, a permit could be jeopardized for the city’s wastewater treatment plant — the only stop for wastewater coming from Lapeer Plating before it goes into the Flint River. The wastewater plant must meet its own set of guidelines set be MDEQ to continue operating.

“The thing we have to remember…is that we service well over 80 other manufacturing facilities, thousands of commercial sites, and residents,” Kerbyson said. “We have to be concerned about everyone. Not just that one factory.”

Harlow, who said he was hired last fall to turnaround Lapeer Plating, noted the impact of the contaminant issue on those efforts.

“We’re making fantastic progress in terms of turning our operations around,” Harlow said. “But we have this what I call ‘black cloud of PFOS’ hanging over our head.”

PFOS problem emerges

Pollutant levels exceeding state guidelines and originating from Lapeer Plating & Plastics has been in the news since Oct. 4, 2017.

That’s when MDEQ announced it had found elevated levels of PFOs and another related contaminant called polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the Flint River

The MDEQ says PFOS and PFAS belong to a class of manmade chemicals used in many industrial applications and consumer products including fire-fighting foams, water proof membranes for outdoor gear, paints and coatings, and nonstick cookware.

Used for decades, the chemicals are known to be very stable and do not break down in the environment.

When the persistent nature and potential health effects of the chemicals were identified, however, their manufacture ceased in the U.S. and use in the plating process was phased out by federal regulations in September of 2015.

“PFOS is of particular concern because it bioaccumulates in fish,” wrote Stephanie Kammer, MDEQ district supervisor, in a Sept. 7 letter to the city.

As recent as April 3, the Michigan Dept. of Health and Human Services issued updated serving guidelines for fish caught in the South Branch of the Flint River, specifically as a result of PFOS. Per the guidelines, carp servings should be limited to two a month, largemouth and smallmouth bass should be six per year, and rock bass and walleye should be one a month

High levels of PFOS in the Flint River were traced by MDEQ officials to the Lapeer Wastewater Treatment Plant, where about 1.5 million gallons of wastewater flow every day. About an equal amount of treated water is discharged into the South Branch of the Flint River daily.

According to a DEQ letter dated Sept. 7, 2017 sent to Pam Reid, director of the Lapeer Dept. of Public Works, river samples received in June indicated that the Lapeer WWTP was a “significant source of PFOS discharging to the Flint River.”

Last September, MDEQ notified the city that “The passthrough of pollutants that are, or may become, injurious to the designated uses of the Flint River, including impairment of fisheries, is a violation of” two permits the city needs for the plant, including the permit that allows it to discharge processed water into the Flint River.

It further stated an inspection on July 11, 2017 focused on Lapeer Plating & Plastics “because it is the only known metal finisher discharging to the Lapeer WWTP.”

In an Oct. 27 letter to Lapeer Plating, the MDEQ noted 13 violations of law generally related to EPA requirements. The letter noted testing of wastewater from Lapeer Plating that showed the company “is the primary known contributor of high levels of PFOS to the Lapeer WWTP, and that this pollutant is being passed through to waters of the state as well as stored in the city’s biosolids.”

When that part of the story was first reported in October, company and city officials said they were surprised at the elevated levels of PFOS since the chemical hadn’t been used at the plant for years.

The company took immediate steps, including cleaning tanks.

Harlow told the MDEQ in his March 13 letter that addressing the problem has not been as smooth as initially planned.

“The chemistry of the (Lapeer Plating) effluent is complicated, and the evaluation of the wastewater constituents has taken longer than originally anticipated,” he wrote.

Solving the PFOS problem

Lapeer Plating & Plastics is privately held and had revenue of about $60 million last year, according to Harlow, though it was not profitable.

Harlow, whose experience includes 25 years in various executive roles at General Motors, said he was hired to turn the company around.

He’s focused on everything from updating the company’s website to improving efficiencies for customers. Harlow even had the company’s logo updated.

For 2018, he said, Lapeer Plating has booked about $43 million in business, and quoted another $45 million.

“I’m not sure how much of that we’re going to get, but I’m hopeful that we’re going to get our fair share,” Harlow said, adding Lapeer Plating has evolved from being a “troubled company to one that is now being asked to be a problem solver and solution provider for our customers.”

Harlow joined Lapeer Plating less than two weeks before the PFOS problem came to light.

He said the problem emerged when it did because state officials were so focused on the Flint River.

“Without the Flint River crisis, we would not be the first up at bat dealing with this issue, but it is what it is,” Harlow said.

The company reacted quickly.

On Oct. 26, several tanks believed to be a source of the PFOS problem were cleaned.

Then, however, Harlow said another big problem surfaced: the source of the PFOS could not be determined. It’s a problem that continues.

“We still have PFOS,” he said. “We don’t yet where it’s coming from.”

Concurrent with trying to find the source or sources of the problem, the company took additional steps to at least treat its effluent wastewater before sending it to the city’s wastewater system.

But it’s taken time.

“As the first plating company in Michigan (and based on our research one of two in the entire U.S.) to deal with treating and reducing the concentration of PFOS in its effluent to a municipal sanitary system, (Lapeer Plating) is a small company forced to be at the forefront of developing a technical solution that reliability reduces the concentration of PFOS in its effluent,” Harlow wrote to MDEQ

Harlow said “we have some recent success” in form of “a filtration system that does get us compliant to 12 parts per trillion.”

However, he notes that when the effluent mixes with the building’s sanitary waste — about 50 feet outside of the plant — “we have grab samples that have been compliant” but it still is trying to get compliant when measurements are taken over a 24-hour period.

Harlow said a 24-hour sample consists of “about 200 samples in a 24-hour period” based on the amount of water Lapeer Plating uses.

“The latest that we have from a 24-hour sample is 52 parts per trillion,” Harlow said, adding that is compliant with the National Drinking Water Standard.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, the agency “has established the health advisory levels at 70 ppt.”

“So we’re very optimistic that we have a technical solution,” Harlow said, pointing out other changes in the works, such as a building to house the company’s racking system that is currently covered by tarps.

(The County Press requested the opportunity to visit the plant and take pictures, but was denied.)

From the city’s perspective, Kerbyson said he remains optimistic.

As previously reported by The County Press, Lapeer Wastewater Treatment Plant officials have been working to remove PFOS from stored sludge. Lapeer Plating is covering any costs.

Kerbyson said Lapeer Plating officials have told the city they plan to thoroughly clean the problematic area where the effluent and sanitary wastewaters meet.

When the company finishes with that project, the city plans to clean the stretch of pipe between the problematic area and the wastewater treatment plant.

If all goes well, Kerbyson said, it will all be done by the end of August.

“We don’t want to continue to contaminate a minute longer than we have to,” Kerbyson said.

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