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Toxic stream of ‘mystery foam’ near Detroit was PFAS -- but from where?

Now the Great Lakes Water Authority is looking at fire-fighting foam as the cause and it may be from a municipal source

Paula Gardner, Walker, Mich.

DETROIT — The thick white foam pouring through a ravine and rolling over a roadway near an I-75 interchange in southwest Detroit seemed scary and mysterious in summer 2018.

Police were called, Hazmat crews wore gloves and boots to get samples, and Schaefer Highway was closed for the so-called “foam events” over several days in early August.

By the time the foam dwindled to a trickle then stopped, the public was told it wasn’t harmful. Officials said the oozing river of foam it may have resulted from construction of a parking lot near Schaefer Highway and I-75 in Melvindale.

Neither was true, investigators now say.

Laboratory tests confirm extremely high concentrations of PFAS in that foam – and officials still are considering “several possible enforcement actions” against more than one “unnamed parties” believed to be responsible for foam so copious it stopped traffic on the industrial thoroughfare on the edge of Detroit, just south of Ford Motor Company’s Rouge complex in Dearborn.

The investigation trail started with Norfolk Southern Railroad, then went to Marathon Petroleum, which operates the state’s only refinery. Both received violation notices at year-end, but neither appears to be the source.

The mystery may be publicly solved this month.

“We think we’ve got a line on it,” said Stephen Kuplicki of the industrial waste control division of the Great Lakes Water Authority. “We’ve laid out several possible enforcement actions.”

Clues point to the use of AFFF, or aqueous fire-fighting foam.

That conclusion is the result of an environmental “whodunit” investigation by the state’s largest water authority.

The situation attracted local attention, but it also reflects growing concerns about PFAS contamination and the chemicals’ health effects on state residents.


Michigan continues to explore the role of AFFF in PFAS contamination, and it awaits the results of a year-long study by the state fire marshal. Thousands of containers of AFFF made with PFOS, one type of PFAS and called C8, are on the shelves of Michigan fire departments.

The dangers of PFAS foam – which results when PFAS combine with both water and a agitating motion - are being elevated in Michigan, with some state health officials already upgrading warnings to “do not touch.” The foam had been accompanied by “do not eat” warnings when was found last year in Michigan rivers, including the Huron and Rogue, and on lakes, like Van Etten near Oscoda.

Three bills to set limits on AFFF in Michigan were introduced into the state House of Representatives in March, and they’ll be discussed on Tuesday, May 7, during the meeting of the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Committee.

The bills would set new reporting standards for departments that use AFFF containing PFAS, along with prohibiting its use in training exercises and setting regulations to protect firefighters exposed to the chemicals.

The proposed AFFF legislation is just one among several initiatives in Michigan to change PFAS-related policy based on findings that the chemicals appear more harmful than previously believed.

While the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy oversees statewide PFAS detection and enforcement, GLWA is investigating the Melvindale mystery foam because it discharged into its storm sewer system. Water moves from the storm sewers to the waste water treatment plant that the water authority runs for communities across southeast Michigan. That wastewater treatment plant, in turn, discharges to the Detroit River, which is both a drinking water source for Metro Detroit and connected to the Great Lakes.

Wastewater processes target biological waste, but they don’t filter for PFAS – the per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals linked to cancer and other adverse health effects.

The state regulates the presence of two types of PFAS in surface water used for drinking water, keeping PFOS below 11-parts per trillion and PFOA below 420-ppt. Because the PFAS foam was moving through the wastewater plant, it became responsible to investigate the source – and halt it.

Within a week of the so-called “foam event,” state officials said it appeared to be the result of a solvent put onto Norfolk Southern property where the railroad had just established a 25-acre asphalt parking lot and foam was found churning in a catch basin.

They took tests, and reports indicated they didn’t expect it to be hazardous. But in the meantime, it prompted the railroad to bring a vacuum truck to the property during rain storms “to intercept the foam leaving the sewer and entering Schaefer Highway,” according to the state.

But while the railroad was forming a mitigation plan to bring an end to the foam, officials determined that no asphalt mixture would contain PFAS.

And the railroad traced the foam to “a previously unknown storm sewer pipe from the property to the west owned by Marathon Petroleum.”

So the trail turned to the state’s only oil refinery, which operates in southwest Detroit.

Marathon already had been working with GLWA on reducing the PFOS it was sending into the wastewater treatment plant, with the concentration ranging from 210-ppt to 800-ppt through July 2018 – and as low as 100-ppt since then. That PFAS comes from AFFF chemicals used by Marathon’s on-site firefighters, the company says.

In the meantime, the PFAS tests came back on the foam: It tested at a highly concentrated 729,000-ppt of PFOS and 9,000-ppt of PFOA. The numbers were far higher than what previous was found at Marathon.

Both Norfolk Southern and Marathon Petroleum received violation notices from GLWA due to the mystery foam and they continue to work on decontaminating the area, officials said.

“That enforcement with both of them is still open and active,” Kuplicki said.

But neither now is believed to be the cause of the foam. Now GLWA is looking at fire-fighting foam as the cause and it may be from a municipal source.

Marathon said its investigation also points to AFFF from off-site, with a company representative the foam was used by a municipality at a scrap yard fire in June 2018, and it and traveled through a storm water ditch, eventually reaching Schaefer Highway.

Chief Joseph Murray, who runs the consolidated Dearborn and Melvindale Fire Departments, said his department does not stock AFFF that contains PFAS.

GLWA’s Kuplicki said he expects more information later this month as officials there determine who else may be involved.

“Everybody’s on the table,” he said.

Meanwhile, the state is still waiting for its comprehensive plan on how to deal with AFFF. The state fire marshal toured several Michigan departments in fall 2018 as officials inventoried how much foam containing PFOS still could be in use. State officials provided no information on where that effort stands today.

And the situation on Schaefer Highway elevated the AFFF issue with PFOS across Marathon Petroleum. While the foam may be essential for certain times of fires, the company is changing its policy in Detroit – and maybe elsewhere.

“Marathon has stopped using C8 firefighting foam in Detroit’s emergency response vehicles and in any fire training exercises, said spokesman Jamal Kheiry. “We are evaluating our emergency response activities company-wide.”


©2019, Walker, Mich.

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