About 50 people and public officials attended a virtual public hearing with the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, Ann Arbor City Council, Scio Township Board of Trustees and the Huron Watershed Council regarding the Gelman Plume Litigation Settlement on Thursday evening. U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., moderated the hearing. 

The Gelman Plume is the spread of the chemical 1,4-dioxane into soil and groundwater in northwest Ann Arbor, polluting residents’ water sources. Gelman Sciences used the probable carcinogen 1,4-dioxane to manufacture microporous filters from 1966 to 1986 and did not dispose of their waste water properly. Unchecked use allowed the contaminant to spread into a large underground plume. 

In August, city officials proposed an agreement on a potential plan to clean up the Gelman Plume, which has been met with criticism from Ann Arbor residents. Thursday’s meeting aimed to inform the public about this settlement agreement and address pre-submitted questions. 

Attorney Fred Dindoffer of Ann Arbor’s legal team explained that most of the new amendments fall within a document called the Consent Judgement and the stipulated order. Some key changes and additions include an expansion of the prohibition zone for pollution, a new exposure limit and increased pumping and treatment of polluted water.

Additionally, the new proposed agreement prohibits all city governments from requesting cleanup by the Environmental Protection Agency, and states Gelman Sciences is not liable for the contamination. 

“By entering into this Consent Judgment, Defendant does not admit any of the allegations of the Complaint, does not admit any fault or liability under any statutory or common law, and does not waive any rights, claims, or defenses with respect to any person,” the document reads. 

Dindoffer clarified why the Consent Judgment doesn’t explicitly hold Gelman at fault. 

“This CJ doesn’t require Gelman to admit that it’s liable or at fault,” Dindoffer said. “That’s a standard provision that’s put into virtually every consent judgement that we ever would see, the purpose is that if there’s ever a dispute about the CJ in the future and if there’s a breaking down of relations, Gelman can bring evidence in and force an opponent to prove that it’s actually at fault.”

Ann Arbor resident James D’Amour who is a member of the Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane expressed his concern with the inability to work with the EPA if the Consent Judgment is accepted.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on legal fees and it appears that the proposed fourth consent judgement does not bring us any closer to cleaning up the plume, in fact it gives Danaher the ability to walk away from the mess,” Demoore said. “If this is accepted local governments waive the right to petition USEPA for complete cleanup, so we have the prospects of a larger exclusive zone with possibly less cleanup than before.” 

Dr. Larry Lemke, who said he has researched 1,4-dioxane for over 20 years, gave a presentation on the proposed contamination clean up plan. 

“We know that there are multiple plumes, migrating in multiple directions at multiple depths, so this is truly a three dimensional problem,” Lemke said. “The proposed fourth amended CJ includes a number of additional monitoring wells in key positions… Are these wells going to completely delineate dioxane to 7.2 parts per billion everywhere? No, it’s not even close. Are these wells placed in sensible places however? Yes.”

The proposed Consent Judgement will have Gelman treat polluted groundwater and discharge it back into First Sister Lake at a rate of 200 gallons per minute. When asked about alternatives to this solution, Lemke explained there will always be many options available and none will be perfect.

“Other potential solutions might include a pipeline back to the Gelman treatment site, they might include reinjection of that water back down into the aquifer after its been treated, it might be piping it to somewhere else, another option is using the city’s sanctuary sewer,” Lemke said. “Every environmental solution has a trade off, there is an upside and a downside to every single one of those.” 

Ann Arbor resident Alexander Weinstein, who lives on Second Sister Lake and whose well would be directly affected by the new settlement, urged the public officials present to reject the proposal because of the pollution it would bring to his home and community. 

“The document gives the polluter permission to dump carcinogens of dioxane and bromate directly into the sister lake through the Park Lake well as one of its methods for disposing of the cleanup,” Weinstein said. “Most importantly there is a viable alternative, a pipeline could be run to the Gelman treatment site, it would be a cost but a completely reasonable one.”

Lemke continued to explain phytoremediation, which is the practice of removing 1,4-dioxane from the ground using trees and is part of the amended Consent Judgement. This is a relatively new and experimental plan and Lemke clarified it should be considered a trial. 

“This is an emerging technology so we should treat this as a pilot project and learn from it,” Lemke said. “The idea is that the dioxane moves with the groundwater to the tree roots and there it’s either transformed by bacteria in the roots into something that the tree can use, or it enters as dioxane that’s dissolved in the water, then it flows through the tree’s water transport system and eventually gets transpired to the atmosphere through the leaves.” 

Ann Arbor resident Jacqueline Courteau explained her hesitancy to support this particular plan without more concrete evidence.

“I’m wondering why there are no performance standards or metrics to assess how the phytoremediation is performing,” Courteau said. “I work with trees. I love trees, but I don’t think that just planting trees and hoping they’ll work is adequate.”

Lemke answered questions pre-submitted by members of the public about possible dioxane contamination of Barton Pond, Ann Arbor’s main drinking water source.

“The risk of 1,4-dioxane moving up there is small, but the potential consequences are large and we can’t rule it out with complete certainty,” Lemke said. “If dioxane got into the subsurface north of M-14, west of Wines Elementary School, it could have a potential flow path down to Barton Pond.”

Members of the public were able to address the officials in an open forum, all of whom unanimously expressed their disapproval of the proposed clean up plan and urged them to not accept it. 

Ann Arbor and Scio Township resident Dan Bicknell was very vocal in his assurances that the proposed cleanup plan would do nothing to stop the dioxane pollution and strongly encouraged a rejection of it. 

“The proposed fourth amendment consent judgement is a continuation of the current CJ pollution remedy which will not stop the dioxane plume from expanding towards the Ann Arbor Township wells, Scio Township wells, Barton Hill village wells or Barton Pond,” Bicknell said. “The shallow plume will continue to travel through the city unabated.” 

Congresswoman Dingell ended the meeting by urging everybody involved to stay transparent and communicate openly to clean up the plume. 

“I would urge those who are participating that the more information they can make transparent the better it is, because people who don’t know what’s not being made public don’t understand why it’s not being made public and it contributes to people’s lack of confidence,” Dingell said. “Dissent and pitting people against each other is what we’ve seen happen at a national level for four years, let’s not let it happen in Washtenaw County, let’s get this cleaned up.”

Daily Staff Reporter Hannah Mackay can be reached at mackayh@umich.edu

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