When Nick Hrnyak looks out from his corporate office on Cascade Road, he can survey a property that is contaminated from decades of electroplating wastes, including nickel, chromium, copper, boron and now PFAS, the persistent and pervasive family of chemicals that is alarming the nation.
In his immediate sight are an attractive office and golf course complex that includes a gymnastics center and church. Just down the road on the same contaminated site are neighborhoods with some of the most expensive homes in Kent County, three small lakes and Schoolhouse Creek, a tributary to the Thornapple River.
It took decades and millions of dollars to rehabilitate the roughly 900-acre site, which once housed three lagoons of chemical brews from the plating industry, and work is ongoing. The goal: Remediate the land so it could be repurposed for residential and commercial use in what’s become a tony area of Cascade Charter Township.
“This is the industry that we are in,” says Hrnyak, president of Lacks Enterprises Inc., the party that funded work at the site and a West Michigan employer of nearly 3,000 people in the plating and surface finishing industry. “This is the cost of doing business. Hopefully, it (PFAS) will be the last contamination issue while I am working, but it may not be the last one for Lacks because science is always chasing the chemistry.”
Right now science is chasing PFAS — short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — and experts say they don’t know how many of the nearly 4,700 PFAS chemicals eventually will be treated as “emerging contaminants” in need of regulation nationally. Only two of the chemicals — PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) — are used in Michigan to set acceptable levels under wastewater and drinking water regulations.
The PFAS family of chemicals has been used worldwide since the 1940s in a wide range of industrial applications and consumer products, such as non-stick cookware, firefighting foams, waterproof shoes and outerwear, Scotchgard for carpets, pizza boxes and fast-food wrappers.
PFAS are tough molecules to break down due to strong chemical bonds that the element fluorine forms with carbon and other elements. That stubborn stability that makes PFAS resistant to heat, water and oils becomes a double-edged sword when ingested by the human body. Instead of breaking down under normal biological processes, the chemicals accumulate in tissues.
Michigan is at the forefront of the nation when it comes to aggressively seeking out sites with potential PFAS contamination, officials say. Consequently, new sites are being found in Michigan on an almost daily basis, said Al Taylor, hazardous waste section manager for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which manages the Lacks site on Cascade Road.
“It’s becoming much more of a national issue,” Taylor told citizens attending an informational meeting on the Lacks site in February at the Wisner Center. “We happen to be on the pointy end of the issue because of Wolverine.”
Rockford-based Wolverine World Wide Inc. (NYSE: WWW) has become embroiled in legal and environmental issues after it was discovered in late 2016 that waste from its process dumped in northern Kent County decades ago has been contaminating widespread areas of surface and groundwater with PFAS.
While Wolverine used the PFAS-based waterproofing agent on footwear as a selling point for consumers, local platers were required by the EPA to use mist suppressants to reduce chromium air emissions in their processes, and those with PFOS as a major active ingredient were “the best available technology” to reduce the risks.
PFOS-based suppressants showed themselves to be highly effective at reducing the emissions of chromium from hard chrome and decorative plating operations nationally. Plating systems that used PFOS as a fume suppressant have seen chromium emissions drop by as much as 98 percent, according to one plating website.
But Minneapolis-based 3M Co. began phasing out the manufacture of PFOS-related products in 2000 based on a growing body of evidence. “PFOS was toxic to animals, persistent in humans, and widespread in the environment,” according to an EPA study of platers in 2009. In 2016, the EPA issued a lifetime health advisory for PFOA and PFOS at 70 parts per trillion in drinking water.
Michigan’s handling of past chemical contamination incidents offers perspective on what it’s going to take to clean up the state’s PFAS problems. Expect it to take decades, billions of dollars and some awkward dances of cooperation.
Reporting on PFAS to date has focused mostly on environmental concerns and pointing blame at the companies and organizations that have discharged the emerging contaminant into water supplies.
MiBiz's three-part series will go beyond the heated rhetoric to offer a dose of reality about how to handle the complex challenges stemming from the equally complex chemical.
Consequently, after following federal directives to use the chemicals as a way to suppress chromium fumes, platers such as Lacks Enterprises and Grand Rapids-based Master Finish Co. now are being held accountable for PFAS contamination at former sites and in current wastewater discharges.
There aren’t any assurances that the alternatives being used today by the industry won’t become tomorrow’s PFAS.
“We have this great new chemistry in use now as an alternative — FTS,” said Christian Richter, executive director of the National Association for Surface Finishing (NASF), a Washington D.C.-based organization that represents platers nationally.
“But it’s possible that someone else may come up some day and say: ‘That’s bad too,’” he said of FTS, or 6:2 fluorotelomer sulfonate. Initial studies have shown that forms of FTS are not toxic, do not have the same tendency to accumulate in animal tissues and tend to degrade more easily than PFOS.
Price to pay
For Lacks, Master Finish and other local platers, PFAS is shaping up to be a huge, two-pronged problem.
One, they are faced with spending substantial sums of money to control PFAS in their plating operations or for remediation at former sites, putting them at a competitive disadvantage to platers in other states that aren’t being held to similar water standards. Two, industry observers say the jury is out whether a cost effective and practical way can be found to remove PFAS diluted to low parts per trillion (ppt) concentrations in water.
Lacks began examining ways to control PFAS emissions several years ago.
“After a lot of searching and seeking, we discovered that this (PFAS removal) was really new,” Hrnyak said. “There wasn’t anything that we saw that was proven technology.
“There’s a lot of ideation, a lot of the theory, but no one is saying: ‘We have been doing this for 10 years. Here’s the system and here’s the data.’”
The company expected to launch a pilot wastewater treatment process at its Airlane North and Airlane South facilities in Kentwood last month to remove PFAS using granular activated carbon (GAC) filtration. The two plants are the oldest among the Lacks plating facilities, and the wastewater effluent has the highest concentrations of PFAS compared to all five of the company’s plating operations.
The use of GAC is proven to remove PFAS from drinking and wastewater, but the technology concentrates PFAS rather than destroying it altogether. After a time of acting as a filter, the carbon granules become saturated with PFAS to the point that they must be discarded in a landfill or regenerated in specially designed incinerators that reach temperatures in excess of 1,100 degrees Celsius — the equivalent of a lava flow from a volcano.
Plainfield Charter Township began filtering its drinking water through GAC in June with the help of a $750,000 grant from the state of Michigan, and its spent GAC will be shipped to Pennsylvania to be regenerated in an incinerator designed to handle hazardous wastes.
The Lacks system at Airlane Drive took months to design and build, and Hrnyak estimates the cost of equipment and its operation for a six-month trial may reach $500,000.
“It’s not going to be cheap to operate,” he said. “And the vendor is not saying that the system will take PFAS concentrations down to zero.”
Sharing best practices
At the same time, Lacks is in the process of designing a different PFAS removal system at its plating facility at 4090 Barden Dr. SE in Kentwood. The hope is to install equipment at Barden and test and compare the two technologies to determine best practices for PFAS removal based on volumes of wastewater, efficiency and cost.
While some may consider Lacks’ development of a workable PFAS removal system as proprietary, Hrnyak said the company intends to share its results with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
“We would rather have the state make decisions based on factual information and develop guidelines that are achievable than just throw darts at stuff,” he said. “We are bringing technology forward and validating it so that we all have good benchmarks to work from.
“They (MDEQ) have a lot of smart people there, and it’s great to have them look and participate. That’s what sets good policy.”
In addition to work at the Airlane and Barden plants, the company will be closely monitoring the wastewater effluent at its Monroe Avenue facility in Grand Rapids, which was expected to begin running at full operation with three shifts in March. The 45,000-square-foot plant has gone through more than $6.5 million worth of upgrades and building renovations during the past three years.
Still, a lingering question continues to hound platers such as Lacks: Where is the PFOS contamination coming from now in their current operations, especially since widespread use of the chemicals stopped in 2015, and often earlier?
One guess is that residual PFAS is still working its way through some plating operations, but that theory doesn’t account for every situation.
“Our Kraft plater is a state-of-the-art facility, launched in 2013 as the largest plater on plastic in North America and possibly the world,” Hrnyak said of the company’s plant off Kraft Avenue in Cascade Charter Township. “We’ve never used PFAS chemistry there, and, by design, no solutions from existing plating operations were introduced into its baths. In theory, we should be getting zero readings of PFAS, but we are still at 24 ppt.
“That gives an indication that there is still something going on that we don’t fully understand. Are we completely sure that they (alternative chemicals) don’t break down? I don’t think anyone can say that with 100-percent certainty. If you have the filtration systems that are working properly, you would expect at some point that they (PFAS emissions) would go to zero.”
On the radar now
PFAS hit the radar screens of Michigan regulators and companies with the advent of testing methods sensitive enough to detect the contaminant in parts per trillion, coupled with studies that extrapolated how humans may be affected if they eat food or drink water contaminated at such low PFAS concentrations.
Analytical methods can now detect PFAS at a level roughly equivalent to a single drop of substance diluted into half a million 55-gallon drums of water, according to the U.S. Navy.
“It was unimaginable 10 years ago that we would be talking about concentrations at that level — and in a regulatory framework that would drop to a low parts per trillion requirement,” said Richter of the NASF.
When the industry initially addressed the PFAS concerns, “everyone was looking at parts per million, and then from a parts per billion standpoint,” he said.
“We have better glasses to look into things now” with the new analytical testing methods for the PFAS family of chemicals, said Fernanda Wilson, environmental engineering lead at Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr & Huber Inc., a Grand Rapids-based consulting firm that has advised local platers such as Master Finish for years on wastewater treatment. “We may have had those (PFAS) problems all along,” but tests didn’t have the resolution that they do now.
Wilson agreed with Hrnyak’s assessment that science will always be chasing the effects of new chemical products on public health and the environment, particularly in low concentrations over long exposure periods.
“In a general, big picture sense not just related to PFAS, we only may be looking at 1 percent of the chemicals that we are exposed to,” Wilson said. “PFAS itself is a large group of maybe 4,000 compounds, and we’re only looking at two of them.
“It doesn’t mean that the others are bad for you by any means, but there’s a chance that others may be identified as emerging contaminants as well. The EPA is in the process of looking into other PFAS compounds, so the potential is there.”
Lacks and Master Finish stopped using PFAS in their processes about six years ago — two years before the national ban on its use. They supported the work of the NASF more than a decade ago to first regulate, then ban the use of PFAS as a vapor suppressant.
Master Finish CEO Aaron Mulder said his company has been trying to be proactive rather than reactive in regards to PFAS, but he declined to make further comment. Master Finish states on its website that in 2007 it recommended to the EPA that it regulate PFAS, and the company served as a beta testing site for new non-PFAS formulations starting in that year.
Chrome electroplating is one of several sources of PFAS entering the environment, and contamination issues tend to be discovered more readily in that industry because it is highly regulated and monitored. Other contamination sources such as landfills and military or commercial airports tend to be more troublesome because they are marked by an uncontrolled release of PFAS into surface and drinking water supplies.
For instance, the four most prominent sites of PFAS contamination listed on the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) website are the Wolverine World Wide situation, the Grayling Army Airfield in Crawford County, the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Iosco County and the Alpena Combat Readiness Center in Alpena County.
Michael Lunn, utilities director for the city of Grand Rapids, said city officials met with 18 of the largest PFAS dischargers in January to develop PFAS-reduction programs similar to ones instituted for the contaminants PCB and mercury.
‘Make it right’
Grand Rapids’ strategy is to identify sources of PFAS that are entering the city’s wastewater system via sanitary sewers, then require the dischargers to reduce their emissions — thereby cutting the overall PFAS emissions from the city’s wastewater treatment plant that feeds into the Grand River.
The Grand River flows into Lake Michigan, which is the city’s source of drinking water.
Since the former Lacks plating site on Cascade Road has been undergoing remediation for more than 30 years, officials with the MDEQ have an extensive database on the contamination plume and know the identity and concentrations of pollutants. Plating had been conducted on the site starting in 1963, and when Lacks bought the property in the 1980s, it inherited responsibility for prior contamination at the site as well as from its own operations.
The area is studded with more than 100 data-gathering sites and wells drilled to various depths to monitor groundwater. Lacks employs two full-time people whose primary responsibility is to provide sampling data and information on the site to the MDEQ. Consequently, it was relatively easy to collect data on the presence of PFAS.
Lacks operates a purge well on the border of Walden Lake that intercepts groundwater contaminated by a plume of chemicals underneath the northern portion of the site, and state officials say carbon filtration may be placed on the equipment to remove PFAS. Some 22 homes will have the option in spring to connect with municipal water systems at the expense of Lacks, even though tests of their wells show PFAS levels below 70 ppt.
“This (PFAS control and remediation) is going to be a multimillion dollar event for Lacks — when you look at the changeover of residences to city water, put filtration in our plants, and continue to maintain our systems,” Hrnyak said. “Whether we were a contributor or it was the guys before us, we’re obligated to make it right. That obligation has never gone away.
“You contain, improve, remediate but as other things come up, you respond.”