How did an area that prides itself on being environmentally-progressive find itself sitting on top of one of the most extensive dioxane contaminations in the world? That’s one of the many questions explored in WEMU’s "Green Room" series on the topic, and this website is a tool to complement the series. It provides an outline for quick overview, and transcripts in sequence for the full story. Click on segments of interest to be taken to the archived audio at WEMU.org.
David Fair: The strategy for dealing with groundwater contamination in the Ann Arbor area has been crafted in a series of county court decisions. Washtenaw County and the City of Ann Arbor were not allowed to provide input into the hearings. As part of WEMU’s ongoing series on remediation of Ann Arbor’s 1,4-dioxane plume, Barbara Lucas explores whether scientific input from the local level will ever become part of the process and future legal decisions.
Barbara Lucas (BL):At the April 18th Town Hall meeting, Ann Arbor Environmental Coordinator Matt Naud announced Attorney General Bill Shuette has agreed to attend local dioxane remediation meetings, where valuable scientific information is shared.
Naud:So we really appreciate that the attorney that is going to be representing the DEQ and the citizens of Michigan and Ann Arbor, has the best available science.Because we are fortunately a really well-educated community and we can tap into local residents who just happen to be hydrogeologists.And their grad students are building models of the plume.Because the company hasn’t built a model of the plume that they will release to us publicly.
BL:He’s referring to research by the director of the Environmental Science Program at Wayne State University.
Lemke:My name is Larry Lemke, I’m a hydrogeologist and a resident of Ann Arbor.I’ve been studying this site for 19 years.
Sounds of Argo Dam.
Lemke:Do you see it there?
BL:I met with Dr. Lemke, by Argo Dam, to learn more about his findings. He says his modeling shows dioxane could already be reaching the Huron—from the Allen Creek drain, where we’re standing now.But he doesn’t advocate simply pumping and treating more, as there could be unintended consequences.
Lemke: …such as lake levels dropping or stream flows dropping because these systems are all interconnected with the groundwater flow.
BL:What about reinjecting the treated water?
Lemke:I'm personally not a big fan of reinjecting the water back into the aquifer.
BL:Because, he says, that can push the plume further.But he has concerns with the current method of discharging treated water—that still contains dioxane—upstream of Ann Arbor’s drinking water supply.He suggests…
Lemke:…maybe build a small transmission pipeline that would transport that water back to the Huron River downstream of Barton Pond, where we get our water supply.
BL:He feels the monitoring wells are so sparsely located that contamination could be slipping past undetected.He advocates placement of wells based on careful modeling.In other words,
Lemke:More strategic pumping.
BL:He says he’d like to see an opportunity to develop an effective strategy out of court.
Lemke:You can get more done if you set the politics and the legal stuff aside. The conversations work better in my experience when you don't have lawyers in the room.
BL:He’s frustrated the judge didn’t hear valuable information.
Lemke:I'm really disappointed that we didn't have the opportunity to inform the decision-maker—the ultimate decision-maker on this—about some of the technical realities.
BL:Back at the Town Hall meeting, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Keith Creagh seems open to input.
Creagh:Now is the time to enter in on the numbers and the models if they aren’t right, we are in a community with a number of Phd’s, I bet.
BL:Dr. Rita Loch-Caruso is a University of Michigan toxicologist.She says based on the chemistry and models,
Loch-Caruso:It’s expected that 1,4-Dioxane moves very efficiently from the mother’s blood into breast milk.
BL:She has issues with the idea that 7.2 ppb of dioxane is safe for everyone to drink.
Loch-Caruso:We need real action that protects the citizens’ heath.
BL:The Attorney General is scheduled to attend the upcoming Technical Meeting of the Dioxane Remediation group.For folks who want the next steps to include scientific input from the city and county levels, that’s a step in the right direction.
David Fair-Gelman Sciences dumped the dioxane that polluted Ann Arbor’s groundwater. Gelman was bought out by Pall, which was purchased by Danaher. Although the Gelman factory is long gone, “Gelman Sciences, Inc.” is the legal entity that holds financial responsibility for the plume. In the seventh WEMU “Green Room” segment devoted to Ann Arbor’s groundwater contamination, Barbara Lucas explores, “How does money, or lack thereof, impact the strategy used to deal with the plume?”
Car door closing.
Barbara Lucas (BL):I’m with Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner Evan Pratt.We’re on Wagner Road next to an extraction well. Pratt would like to see more pumping and treating.
Hum of extraction well motor.
Evan Pratt:There's dozens and dozens of these in various parts of Ann Arbor and I think we'd all love it if they had dozens and dozens more. Back in 2012 they slowed down the rate at which they pump this material out, I’m not sure what reason why.
BL:He knows that since 2005, the court-ordered goal has been “containment” of the dioxane plume, and not clean-up to drinking water standards.But he says even that low goal isn’t being met, as the plume is spreading.He’d like to see the legally-responsible polluter spend more.
Pratt:The current rate of spending is somewhere between $1 million and $2 million a year.
BL:He’s glad for the $700,000 the state legislature has allocated to the DEQ to monitor Ann Arbor’s plume.But he points out that’s taxpayer money, paying for a problem industry created.And the DEQ’s already hurting.
Pratt:In the last 15 years the DEQ’s staff has been slashed by 25% and their budget’s been slashed by almost 60%, and so they're spread pretty thin!
BL:State Representative Jeff Irwin notes how economic interests have influenced the remediation strategy negotiated in court.
Irwin:We are going to be up against Gelman, Pall and Danaher who want to hold on to as many of their dollars as possible at the expense of our groundwater and our environment here in Ann Arbor.
BL:He blames the political climate for the lack of funds.
Irwin:The law requires the DEQ to balance economic utility with the actual harm to human beings, and because here in Ann Arbor we are on city water, there has been an attitude that we can solve this by putting in place these prohibition zones, which are really just to prevent people from ever touching the water again.To me, that’s a totally unacceptable way to treat all of our water or our rights to that water.
BL:Irwin says there’s talk of proposing a more protective state standard for 1,4-Dioxane—something like 3.5 ppb.But he says there’s a political barrier.
Irwin:We are working with a majority in the state legislature that values the economy over human health, in my opinion.
BL:Some may be reassured there is a chunk of money earmarked for the Ann Arbor contamination.
Michael McClellan:Twenty-eight million, four-hundred and thirty-one thousand, eight-hundred and forty-six.
BL:That’s Michael McClellan of the DEQ.He’s referring to the “Financial Assurance Mechanism”—money Gelman, Inc. was court-ordered to set aside.
BL:What are the conditions that need to be met before those funds can be used?
McClellan: That's a line of credit that we have, so really the condition is if Gelman is unable to financially perform their obligations, under the consent judgment, we are able to use the line of credit.
BL:I meet with Roger Rayle of Scio Residents for Clean Water.
Roger Rayle:…look at the 3-D representation over the years.
Rayle:He shows me his computer modeling of the mass of dioxane, which in almost three decades of treatment has decreased by only a fraction.He says $28 million it’s not nearly enough to deal with what remains. But for those who’d like to see the plume tackled more aggressively, could that money be somehow be accessed, now?
Rayle:That's not going to happen anytime soon. We would have to call “The Sheriff!”
David Fair: The University of Michigan has been close to Ann Arbor’s dioxane problem from the start. It was a U of M student who first discovered the toxin, draining from Gelman Sciences into a nearby lake. And now, the University finds itself in the path of the spreading plume. In the eighth of WEMU’s “Green Room” series, Barbara Lucas ask the question, what is U of M’s involvement in studying Ann Arbor’s dioxane problem?
Music from video.
Video narrator (Andrew Maynard):How dangerous is 1,4-Dioxane?
Barbara Lucas (BL):This is a video produced by Dr. Andrew Maynard, who’s currently a professor at Arizona State University.
Video narrator (Andrew Maynard):That may seem like an obscure question, but if you live near dioxane contamination, it’s an important one…
BL:Two years ago when he produced it, he was the University of Michigan Charles and Rita Gelman Risk Science endowed professor.He was also director of U of M’s Risk Science Center, which received a $5 million gift from Charles and Rita Gelman.I ask if industry money affects research.He says he made every effort to avoid influence.But he feels…
Maynard: Very clearly there are subtle impacts of taking money from companies to do research and those subtle impacts are along the lines of which questions are asked, and which questions are not asked.And so you get to the Gelman situation and you look at how much research is being done at the University of Michigan on the dioxane contamination, and the answer is remarkably little.You look at how often we actually use that local contamination as a teaching opportunity and a teaching moment for our environmental health students, and the answer is virtually never. I think I was one of the only faculty that actually did that when I was there.So clearly these donations have a very, very subtle effect on what is done and what is not done.
BL:Another consideration is raised by Dr. Henry Pollack, former geology professor at U of M.He points out that instead of a local community orientation, U of M has had more of an international focus.His research, for example:
Henry Pollack:Maybe a third of my papers you will find the word “global” in the title.I like to look at big picture items, and things that affect the whole world, or describe the whole earth.And so that’s definitely at the expense of looking at a community problem.
BL: Indeed, he is world renowned for his work on global climate change.
Pollack:Not to minimize the community problem, but my interests were more in a global picture.The University loves that kind of stuff. If it is a local problem and has national and international implications, it will be popular at the University.
BL:Dr. Pollack is joined by his wife, Lana Pollack, former president of the Michigan Environmental Council and state senator.The Pollacks feel Michigan’s water issues may be reaching that national stage.
Lana Pollack (LP):If we go though a period of public interest in…
Henry Pollack (HP):And public outrage!
LP: —and public outrage, and public demand—for clean water, then this could be part of that story.But frankly, there are so many stories…
HP:And what Flint has shown, what it immediately led to, is there are Flints all over the place!
BL:Although much less dangerous than lead, dioxane-contaminated water is also being discovered in a growing number of communities around the country .Dr. Rita Loch-Caruso is a toxicologist at the University of Michigan.She’s hopeful of more U of M involvement.
Rita Loch-Caruso:I think the time is coming, is arriving.
BL:She’s director of the Center on Lifestage Environmental Exposures and Disease at U of M.
Loch-Caruso: And one of the things that Center is supposed to do is to respond to local and regional environmental health crises.
BL:She says the goal is for the center to be engaged in community health crises, and to be part of…
Loch-Caruso:… the measured, science-based discussion.And that’s what I want us—our center—to be doing.
Fade in music from "Risk Bites" video.
BL:How are other communities with 1,4-Dioxane contamination dealing with it?Stay tuned as we explore this and more on upcoming segments of “The Green Room.”
David Fair: As Ann Arbor’s frustration grows with its spreading 1,4 dioxane plume, some are calling for the federal government to step in and help address the issue with a “Superfund designation.” In the 9th segment of this “Green Room” series, Barbara Lucas explores the question, “Is Superfund the answer?”
Frogs, birds, kayak paddles.
Barbara Lucas (BL): I’m kayaking towards the mouth of Honey Creek.It empties here into Barton Pond, where Ann Arbor gets its drinking water.Many aren’t happy that treated water is sent down Honey Creek, considering a daily maximum of 22 ppb dioxane can be left in the discharge water.But the dioxane is diluted to the point of non-detection when it hits the pond.More concerning is the prospect of the huge underground plume reaching the river.Dr. Larry Lemke of Wayne State University says his modeling shows that may have already happened, downstream of the pond.
Larry Lemke:The implications are, number one, 1,4-dioxane could already be at the Huron River, just undetected because we have such a widely spaced series of monitoring wells.And number two, when and if it does reach the river it could be traveling there for a long period of time—many, many decades.
BL: At a Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting, Ann Arbor Township Supervisor Mike Moran says relying on the state DEQ and Attorney General’s office hasn’t worked.
Mike Moran: Their promised timetable for action has been extended again and again and again.Simply stated, I’ve lost my confidence that the State of Michigan is willing to do what needs to be done bring this to a satisfactory conclusion.Something’s got to be done!
BL:He advocates applying for Superfund designation.
Moran: I think that we are more likely to get a more concentrated and effective effort from the U.S. EPA then we’ve gotten from State of Michigan.
BL:Would the EPA apply their advisory level of 0.35 ppb, as the states of Colorado, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are using?Not in Michigan, according to Bob Wagner of the DEQ.
Bob Wagner:No maximum contaminant level for drinking water has been established by EPA.
BL:He says the EPA level of 0.35 ppb is only suggested, it’s not law.It is not used in other Superfund sites in Michigan, because Superfunds are set up to rely on state criteria.
Wagner: Basically we end up coming back to the state criteria, even for EPA Superfund sites in Michigan.
BL:We discuss the KL Avenue Landfill in Kalamazoo, which has been a Superfund site for 34 years.Hundreds of wells have been capped, while many other homes are still using dioxane-contaminated water.Their plume is spreading.Although it’s a Superfund site, there’s zero treatment.Why isn’t Superfund living up to its “Super Hero” name in Kalamazoo?
BL:I spoke with Professor Murray Borrello.He and his Alma College students research the nearby Velsicol Superfund site.He says when Superfund was first enacted by Congress in 1980, it was funded by a tax on polluting industries.But in 1995…
Murray Borrello:It was up for reauthorization, so Congress had to vote on that.That was right after the Gingrich revolution, under the Reagan administration, and there was a very big movement to deregulate, when it comes to the environment, especially with industry.So the Superfund tax was not reauthorized. So the tax has run out.There is no money in Superfund at all.
BL:He says now General Fund—taxpayer money—keeps Superfund alive, barely.He says Ann Arbor’s situation is unusual, with an identified polluter, that’s at least attempting a cleanup.
Borrello:In most Superfund sites you don’t have anybody doing anything on these contaminated sites.
BL:But he says even though the application process takes years, and doesn’t guarantee results…
Borrello The pros of making it a Superfund site is that it draws political attention to the issue.
BL:And that may be enough to spur on advocates of going this route.
David Fair: Calls are being made for EPA assistance in remediating Ann Arbor’s dioxane-contaminated groundwater. But some worry about the stigma Superfund can bring. In the tenth of WEMU’s Green Room series, Barbara Lucas explores the question, “Will property values go down if Ann Arbor’s 1,4-Dioxane contamination is designated a Superfund site?”
Sound of rushing water, birds, frogs.
Barbara Lucas (BL): I’m at Argo Cascades in Ann Arbor.Birds and frogs are singing. People are tubing, biking, roller blading.It’s buzzing with life—like Ann Arbor as a whole, which is one of the state’s hottest real estate markets.
Maris Laporter:And so that’s a concern…
BL:Maris Laporter is a local realtor.She wants action on the dioxane problem, whatever it takes.
Laporter:As realtors, we can’t pretend this isn’t happening.For years people didn’t know about it.But now with Flint everyone knows about it.And as realtors we have to be open about it.So if it requires a Superfund designation, then that’s what it is.
BL: Laporter has sold houses here for 13 years, and has had only one buyer say they would not look at houses in the plume, nor within its path.
Laporter:They came to Ann Arbor right as the problems in Flint came to light, so they became very aware of it.
BL: Mike Moran is Supervisor of Ann Arbor Township.He says studies have found if nothing is done to improve a Superfund site, property values can decrease.On the other hand….
Moran: If the local problem becomes a Superfund site the effect is actually positive on property values, if a cleanup if achieved.
BL: I ask if homeowners will welcome more wells in their midst—drilled for monitoring and extraction—if the remediation is significantly stepped up.He says about twelve years ago…
Moran:…at that time there was a proposal to extract the water and treat and pipe it along expressway to a place where it could be re-injected into the river.There was some public resistance to that plan.And again, the resistance was based on a fear of dropping property values.But that was twelve years ago and the situation hasn’t gotten better, it has gotten worse.I don’t know and cannot predict what the public’s reaction would be to a more vigorous plan.I hope it would be supported because it is needed.
BL: What’s been the experience in other states?I call Bonnie Rader, leader of a community group in Denver.They’re fighting for cleanup of dioxane at the nearby Lowry Landfill Superfund site.She says new housing is being built within a mile of the site.
Rader:And those property values have not gone down, they’re very high over there. But I must say we need to be careful with these new neighbors with how we release our information.
BL:She says simply scaring people can be counterproductive.
Rader:We don’t want property values to go down either. But at same time we know we have to do something about this.
BL:Rader says it’s all in how it’s handled. She says it's counter-productive...
Rader: ...if it’s just being designated a Superfund site without any goals to say, "Here is how we’re going to control this from here on, and we’d like you to be a part of the process."Which is what Superfund guarantees, that the community will be part of the planning and execution of the process.
BL:She says that instills confidence and prevents a loss of property values.
Rader:But you have to have regulators that will take the people’s ideas and go forward with them.
BL:Apparently, there’s a fine line between scaring people away from an area, or inspiring them to advocate for it.