The state of Michigan sent a concurrence letter Monday to the Environmental Protection Agency, officially setting in motion the federal cleanup process for the decades-old 1,4-dioxane plume contaminating Ann Arbor’s groundwater system.
“As requested by the communities, please reinitiate assessment of the site for the (National Priorities List) listing process,” the letter reads. “The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) will work closely with the USEPA and will also ensure that the current remedy continues to protect human health and remains in compliance with Michigan law during the NPL process.”
The plume, known as the Gelman plume, takes its moniker from the late Charles Gelman, a manufacturer of micro-porous filters in Ann Arbor in the 1950s. The chemical 1,4-dioxane — a likely carcinogen found to cause kidney and liver cancer as well as respiratory complications — was used in the manufacturing process and seeped into the ground beneath the company’s Scio Township plant. The contamination has since spread through the Ann Arbor area toward West Park and branches off of the Allen Creek drain system that discharges into the Huron River.
In December 2020, Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, Scio Township and Ann Arbor Township all sent letters to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, urging her to support EPA Superfund cleanup efforts. After four months, Whitmer approved EPA cleanup aid, prompting Monday’s concurrence letter sent by the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.
The concurrence letter comes one day before community members and local officials were planning to travel to Lansing to demand action from Whitmer on the steps of the Capitol. The rally has since been canceled.
The EPA has previously specified that its involvement in the Gelman site cleanup will only move forward if the state approves. Whitmer’s support will begin the process of placing the Gelman site on the National Priorities List, which will then allow the EPA to step in and begin the cleanup. To be eligible for the NPL, the EPA will continue local and state efforts to collect data and samples from the Gelman site before determining cleanup methods. The eligibility process would normally take two to three years, but local efforts to collect data and samples over years may shorten that time period, officials tell The Michigan Daily.
“Thank you Governor Whitmer for sending the letter to the EPA,” Ann Arbor City Councilmember Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, wrote in a tweet Monday afternoon. Griswold has been active in organizing efforts around a more comprehensive cleanup of the site.
“I see that the EPA path is more strategic,” Griswold told The Daily. “It is going to take a few years before there’s actual cleanup under the EPA. But during that time, we’ll continue to clean up under consent judgment three, and then we may have a ruling from Judge Connors, that will require greater cleanup and that’s what I’m hoping for.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., also released a statement Monday in praise of the progress toward the Gelman plume being added to the National Priorities List.
“For decades, the growing dioxane plume has been spreading through Ann Arbor’s groundwater, posing a concerning threat to our families and the surrounding environment,” Dingell’s statement reads. “Our communities have worked together to get us to this point, and I will continue to work with all federal, state, and local officials, as well as all stakeholders involved, to ensure this contamination is properly remediated and our public health is protected long-term.”
In 2016, the city of Ann Arbor filed a new lawsuit against Gelman and his company. A settlement was reached in September 2020, which detailed a thorough cleanup protocol, but residents were skeptical about the ability of local authorities to oversee and enforce this cleanup.
Dan Bicknell, an environmental remediation professional who discovered the Gelman plume while completing research at the University of Michigan in 1984, called the idea that local government could compel a “resistant polluter” to conduct these cleanup efforts “not logical” in a September interview with The Daily.
While local officials continue to play out litigation in court — and are expected to present ideas for a new cleanup proposal in early May — the state is now also one step closer to receiving EPA Superfund cleanup.
Ann Arbor resident Beth Collins, secretary of Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane, told The Daily in an interview that Monday’s letter will be instrumental in bringing in the federal aid needed to strengthen cleanup efforts.
“I’m excited and all of us that have been wanting this (letter) for many years are hoping that this (letter) is the start of a new partnership between the state, federal and local units of government are all stakeholders,” Collins said.
Previous attempts to introduce EPA intervention began in 2017, when the EPA conducted a preliminary analysis of the Gelman site after increasing activism from local community members. The preliminary assessment found that the Gelman site qualified “for further investigation and evaluation in the NPL listing process — however, former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder did not support Superfund intervention.
“I have said before that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result,” Collins said. “Every time (officials) want to go back to court — I mean nothing different has happened, and the plume keeps moving so you just want something different. I feel like a lot of people (may be) apprehensive of the EPA because it is different, but in my mind, that’s good. Difference is going to be good on this site.”
Jason Morgan, District 8 commissioner on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, told The Daily the state’s letter is “monumental” given that it starts a bigger process with the federal government. Morgan also said the federal government will be able to finally hold the polluter accountable by requiring Gelman Sciences to pay for the adequate cleanup measures set by the EPA.
“That’s something we weighed quite a bit as we were thinking about our essentially two routes that we could go to pursue cleanup,” Morgan said. “The benefit to the federal approach is that they have more tools at their disposal. With the state process, we have a limited regulatory framework of state law to work with.”
Roger Rayle, a long-time activist and follower of the Gelman plume site, told The Daily the EPA’s next step will be crucial in forming a plan to adequately address contamination. He said he is looking forward to the data collection and hopes to review the findings in the near future.
“We need data, because the only way you find out about contamination in groundwater is from the data from the sampling,” Rayle said. “And if we don’t have enough sampling, we don’t have a proper definition of the problem. Without a proper definition of the problem, you aren’t going to get a proper solution.”
Rayle also said he hopes the University will make an effort to lend its resources in support of efforts to study and research the plume’s impact on community organizing and governmental structures. According to Rayle, these efforts will help address similar issues that may arise in the future. He also said the University is already intrinsically tied to the plume’s history, given that both Gelman and Bicknell are University alumni.
“Why not use this crisis as an opportunity and help solve not just our current local problems here, but other problems throughout the world?” Rayle said. “That’s what universities do … The University is entwined in this whether it wants to or not.”
Ann Arbor resident Rita Mitchell said she first heard of the Gelman plume in 1993 but has become more aware of the issue in the last 15 years. Mitchell said she appreciates all of the community members and local officials who played a part in advocating for cleanup, adding that she is looking forward to the EPA cleanup effort.
“It’s been pretty amazing — the kind of stamina that (community members and local officials have) had to follow it and to call out the concern,” Mitchell said. “I’m thrilled, but I know there’s still a lot of work to do.”
Daily News Editor Kristina Zheng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Daily Staff Reporter Julianna Morano can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: This article has been updated with Jason Morgan’s current position on the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, of which he is a commissioner representing District 8. Morgan previously held the position of chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.