The New Baltimore Water Plant, the main water treatment facility for the small town of 14,000 people, routinely adds chemicals to the water supply. The plant does this under the mistaken belief that these chemicals – including fluoride – promote better health. (Related: Is your area's water supply prone to fluoride hacking?)
To this end, New Baltimore has a contract with Detroit-based company PVS Nolwood Chemicals to supply it with blue 55-gallon drums filled with chemicals to mix into the water. It provides chemicals to at least nine other municipal water treatment stations in the state.
On July 11, the New Baltimore water treatment plant received its regular order of several drums filled with chemicals. The labels said these drums were filled with hydrofluosilicic acid. This is a chemical commonly used to fluoridate drinking water, and many erroneously believe ingesting it prevents tooth decay.
But the four drums actually contained 93 percent sulfuric acid, a corrosive and toxic chemical commonly found in fertilizers, drain cleaners, detergents, batteries and antifreeze. Sulfuric acid is not safe to drink.
New Baltimore Water Plant Superintendent Chris Hiltunen said an employee was pumping what he believed to be hydrofluosilicic acid from a drum into a storage tank. This tank feeds into the town's water supply.
But before the water could be fed into the wider water network, a chemical reaction occurred. "As soon as he turned that pump on to transfer the chemical into the day tank, there was a pretty substantial reaction, created some heat, some mist," said Hiltunen.
The employee immediately stopped and told his superiors. The plant was shut down immediately to prevent the chemical from getting into the water supply.
"It was the most aggressive thing I had ever seen chemical-wise," said Hiltunen.
After the plant was shut down, Hiltunen contacted the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) to report the situation. The EGLE is also responsible for overseeing chemical companies like PVS Nolwood.
EGLE immediately released a statement announcing that PVS Nolwood is no longer authorized to supply municipal water treatment facilities with chemicals.
"To notify water systems that feed treatment chemicals, that they are no longer authorized under the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act to order and add chemicals from PVS Nolwood Chemicals, Inc," said EGLE. "Therefore, please make arrangements to secure chemicals from alternative suppliers."
"This incident is an important reminder for water suppliers to review their standard operating procedures for chemical delivery and releases," added EGLE.
EGLE further pointed out that this was a "serious incident" and PVS Nolwood's mislabeling of the sulfuric acid drums put the plant operators and the city's water supply at risk.
Hiltunen said PVS Nolwood's error damaged the plant's storage tank and pump. It will cost the city about $10,000 to replace. He received a $1,200 invoice from PVS Nolwood for the mislabeled chemicals.
"I just sent it right back to them," he said.
Soon after EGLE made its announcement, NSF International, a global nonprofit that establishes standards for chemicals that may be added to drinking water, stripped PVS Nolwood of its certification.
"Certification for all products is withdrawn due to PVS Nolwood's failure to comply with NSF certification requirements, including unauthorized use of the NSF mark and applying the NSF mark to non-certified product(s)," wrote the nonprofit. "PVS Nolwood labeled a product as hydrofluosilicic acid and applied the NSF mark to the product packaging when the product was in fact sulfuric acid."
New Baltimore Mayor John Dupray said he immediately ordered the city to cancel its contract with PVS Nolwood as soon as he found out about the incident.
"We will no longer be a customer of theirs," he said. "I was surprised and very concerned. It should be a concern to everyone how this mistake happened so easily with products being mislabeled. There should be better safety precautions."
In a statement, PVS Nolwood claimed this was a solitary incident and that it is not indicative of anything systemic in the company.
"Fortunately, as the New Baltimore operator began to add the contents of the first drum he realized there was a problem and stopped," wrote the company. "The water supply was never contaminated and the incident was managed, and cleaned up without further incident."
"PVS accounted for all the drums involved in the incident and the company says it is certain there are no other mislabeled drums at our site or any other customer site."
Before Dupray severed all ties with PVS Nolwood, the company supplied the town with chemicals for at least 25 years. Instead of rethinking whether or not it should put dangerous chemicals into the water supply, it is instead looking for a new supplier.