Canada firm spills hydrochloric acid in St. Clair River

by Keith Matheny, originally posted on April 22, 2016


A Canadian factory’s accidental spill of hydrochloric acid into the St. Clair River earlier this week is apparently not impacting the drinking water supplies of the millions of Michigan and Canadian residents downriver.

The incident occurred Tuesday, when water containing “diluted hydrochloric acid (less than 10%)” entered a water separator and then overflowed from the separator into the St. Clair River at Canadian petro-chemical company Imperial Oil’s plant in Sarnia, Ontario, just across the river from Michigan’s St. Clair County, according to a company statement.

The release was discovered about 10:15 p.m. and was stopped about a half hour later, company officials stated.

Hydrochloric acid “readily dilutes in water and is occasionally used at the site to assist with the cleaning of process equipment,” plant officials said. Imperial is investigating both the cause and volume of the spill, officials said.

Ontario’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and the Canadian Coast Guard were notified, Imperial Oil officials stated. On the Michigan side, state Department of Environmental Quality spokeswoman Karen Tommasulo said the agency was notified by both Ontario environmental regulators and the Michigan State Police early Wednesday. The DEQ then notified water plant operators and managers between Sarnia and Anchor Bay as a precaution, she said.

Derek Young, an operator at the City of Marysville’s drinking water plant just downriver from the acid spill site, said no contamination has been detected all week from the spill.  “All of our results are coming out normal,” he said.

The incident points out the sometimes-problematic proximity of Sarnia’s so called “Chemical Valley,” a 15-square-mile area with dozens of refineries and chemical plants that houses about 40% of Canada’s chemical industry, to the St. Clair River and connected to Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River, the main source of drinking water for communities on both sides of the border.

“This is just why it’s important for community members to remain watchful,” said Sheri Faust, president of the nonprofit Friends of the St. Clair River Watershed.

Faust also is a member of a binational public advisory council, including agencies and organizations on both sides of the St. Clair River, working on improving monitoring and response when spills happen.

“The spills are much less frequent than they used to be, and the response rate, the communication has greatly improved,” she said.

Chemical Valley and the plants that line the St. Clair River pose a threat to the purity of water consumed by millions of residents across southeast Michigan, U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, a Republican whose district includes St. Clair County, said in a statement.

Miller noted that she helped secure federal funding to build and support “a high-tech, real-time water quality monitoring system that stretched from Lake Huron to Lake Erie,” and said the number of chemical spills along the corridor “dropped significantly” afterward.

“Unfortunately, maintaining this system was not made a priority, and it eventually crumbled,” she said.

“Today, with the news of this most recent spill in the St. Clair River within such close proximity to multiple water intake facilities, we are reminded of the threat posed by such spills and of the need to revive a monitoring system that provides residents with the assurances they deserve.”

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