U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., and Washtenaw County officials hosted a virtual community information session Thursday evening to answer questions and provide updates on the Gelman plume, a decades-old 1,4-dioxane pollution contamination running through the groundwater of Ann Arbor.
Dingell was joined by representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, who were all present to answer community member’s questions and speak to the status and future of the plume. The event precedes a court hearing set to take place on Monday to hear arguments from Gelman’s lawyers on possible changes to the amended consent judgement currently in effect.
A large topic of conversation throughout the meeting centered around the fourth consent judgement reached in August that was rejected by Ann Arbor City Council in October 2020. The proposed settlement called for increased monitoring and cleanup of the dioxane by expanding prohibition drinking water zones and increasing well installments to monitor the migration of the plume, which opponents argue does not adequately clean the water system.
The plume’s history spans back to 1958 when the late Charles Gelman began manufacturing micro-porous filters in Ann Arbor. The company used a chemical called 1,4-dioxane during the manufacturing process, dumped its waste into an aboveground site and this waste eventually seeped into soil, polluting groundwater at the company’s Scio Township plant. The 1,4-dioxane was discovered in the Third Sister Lake, east of the Scio Township plant, years later by Daniel Bicknell in 1984 while he was doing research at the University of Michigan.
Since the spill, the dioxane has spread into a large plume of underground contamination in northwest Ann Arbor. Dioxane is a probable carcinogen and can cause kidney, liver damage and respiratory problems.
At the beginning of the meeting, Dingell discussed the confusion that has ensued around issues pertaining to the Gelman plume and emphasized the frustration from elected officials and community members on the lack of transparency from Gelman with the issue. She noted that recently, elected officials and constituents were hearing different things from lawyers and officials involved and that this meeting needed to be a place where the record was set straight so everyone could be on the same page.
“We need to have everybody in every community hear the same information today, the same answers,” Dingell said. “EGLE and the EPA … needs to hear from the community in one voice.”
EPA deputy director Joan Tanaka went on to discuss qualifications for the Gelman plume to be considered a Superfund site, which would mean that the EPA would take charge in cleaning up the contaminated sites. Having the federal agency take over would ensure Gelman is held accountable to do clean-ups and would be responsible in reimbursing the EPA for cleanup efforts, Tanaka said. Proponents for the federal intervention have argued that Gelman has not been held accountable to properly clean up the pollution.
Tanaka next laid out the timeline for how the situation in Ann Arbor would qualify as a Superfund site, which she said could take ten or more years. In Dec. 2020, Ann Arbor City Council sent a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer requesting the state support a petition for the EPA to add the plume to the National Priorities List Site Listing Process. By approving the site on the NPL list, EPA is then able to step in and begin the process of examining the scope of contamination and how to effectively get rid of it, Tanaka said.
“We know the Gelman plume is an important issue to all of you, and that makes it for us as well, regardless of which role we take,” Tanaka said.
Currently, the city is pursuing litigation in the Washtenaw County Circuit Court while awaiting approval from Whitmer to go through with the EPA cleanup plan. Right now, the site is a state-lead site, meaning EGLE is in charge of performing monthly sampling of residential wells to check for dioxane levels. The fourth consent judgment also would require that Gelman reimburse EGLE for the sampling program.
A large portion of the meeting was dedicated to taking pre-submitted questions from community members that were relayed through Jason Morgan, chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. One question was posed by Michael Moran, Ann Arbor Township supervisor, about what else community councils can do aside from pass resolutions to get Whitmer to issue a letter of concurrence in getting the EPA to qualify the site as a Superfund site and be put on the NPL list.
Cheryl Newton, EPA acting administrator for Region 5, chimed in to answer the question, saying that the Gelman dioxane plume is a unique issue and that the EPA will continue to support the state of Michigan’s efforts to take care of the plume.
“I want to make sure everybody is hearing loud and clear that our goal is to then take advantage and optimize the uniqueness of this circumstance,” Newton said. “And that includes supporting Michigan’s efforts to get more protections in place under their state authority while it proceeds to review under the NPL (National Priorities List) process is occurring.”
The meeting then moved onto a section for public comment.
Ann Arbor resident Roger Rayle, co-founder and chair of Scio Residents for Safe Water and a member of Washtenaw County’s Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane, spoke during public comment about the need for the state and EPA to move forward a real effort to clean up the dioxane.
“I’ve been working on this site as a volunteer citizen unpaid for 27 plus years … It’s time for the concurrence letter to get in and get on with the process because what’s been going on is getting really old and unacceptable,” Rayle said.
Councilmember Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, spoke during the public comments section, noting the need for the EPA to step in and work to hold the polluter accountable. She also commended elected officials in the area such as herself for stepping up and passing resolutions and writing letters to the governor.
“For me, it’s really simple,” Griswold said. “We have stronger polluter pay laws at the federal level and for that reason we need to bring in the EPA. At the same time I look forward to EGLE and the EPA working together, and I can tell you no one is more concerned and working harder than the elected officials who submitted those resolutions and letters (to the Governor asking for her to help petition the EPA to consider it for the NPL list).”
Councilmember Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, also spoke at the public comment section, criticizing the state for not dealing with the issue well enough and the polluter for not effectively cleaning the dioxane. He also noted that he felt the fourth consent judgment was not good enough in tackling this issue and expressed his disapproval of it.
“We’ve missed many, many opportunities where the polluter has violated the existing things in the third consent judgment as an example,” Hayner said. “All this is a drag-out game for the polluter… We can’t let it happen anymore. Of course, we want something better in place. If the fourth consent judgement was better, we would have approved it. But it isn’t, it isn’t better. And we reject it and I reject the notion that the state’s going to be protective. Protective is not enough anymore.”
The meeting concluded with remarks from Liesl Clark, the director of EGLE, in which she acknowledged the need for the meeting and emphasized the success of the meeting in getting everyone on the same page.
“This was necessary,” Clark said. “I hear the resolutions, we read the letter of resolutions, we see the letters and then we are having different discussions. This has been really helpful to demonstrate where everyone’s at … We are looking forward to moving forward as well.”
Daily Staff Reporter Julia Forrest can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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