The Washtenaw County Trial Court delivered a victory for Gelman plume cleanup advocates after meeting virtually Monday to discuss charges against Gelman Sciences. After hearing partial arguments from Gelman Sciences and the intervening parties — Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, the county health department, Scio Township and the Huron River Watershed Council — Judge Tim Connors ruled to order the immediate but interim implementation of the proposed fourth amended consent judgement, which calls for a stricter cleanup. Connors indicated that the judgement is sensitive to a future appeal and will be subject to quarterly review beginning on Sep. 1.
The Gelman plume is an area of groundwater contamination in northwest Ann Arbor, resulting from build up of 1,4-dioxane, which is suspected by the Environmental Protection Agency to be a carcinogen. 1,4-dioxane was used by Gelman Sciences, Inc. in the manufacturing process of micro-porous filters during the 1950s. The plume was first discovered in 1984, though the City of Ann Arbor did not officially file a lawsuit against Gelman Sciences, Inc. until 2016.
The fourth consent judgement was initially proposed in August 2020, but faced strong public opposition at the time, and was ultimately rejected by the Ann Arbor City Council in October 2020. The key differences between the previous third consent judgement and the proposed fourth included significantly reducing the acceptable concentration of 1,4-dioxane in the ground water from 85 parts-per-billion to just 7.2 ppb. The most recent judgement also calls for the expansion of the Prohibition Zone to further protect the public from using or ingesting water with more than 7.2 ppb of dioxane. Additionally, the fourth judgement mandated that Gelman implement 14 new monitoring wells so new dioxane threats can be more easily detected.
In March 2021, Connors denied Gelman Sciences’ motion to halt further hearings related to the plume cleanup in Ann Arbor, instead asking all involved actors to appear virtually before him in court between May 3 and May 5 to submit their proposed changes to the contentious cleanup process.
Following an opening statement from accused polluter Gelman Sciences and midway through the presentation given by attorney Nathan Dupes on behalf of the interveners, Connors proposed adopting fourth consent judgement subject to continual review by all involved parties.
While Gelman Sciences indicated a desire to roll back some of the new environmental and safety protections outlined in the fourth consent judgement, the interveners argued the fourth consent judgement would not do enough to effectively clean up the pollution. Though Connor conceded that the proposed measures are still imperfect, he said that by implementing them now, the cleanup effort will make clear progress and all parties can be involved in the process.
“It’s one step with ongoing review,” Connors said. “But at least, with the order, that’s the first step. And I’m going to stay on the case.”
Representatives for Gelman Sciences, including attorney Michael Caldwell, expressed their discontent with Connors’ decision. Caldwell argued it was “fundamentally unfair” to mandate the implementation of some of the measures laid out in the fourth consent judgement but not the additional negotiations that persuaded Gelman Sciences to sign on to the fourth agreement in the first place. The other components of the fourth consent judgement originally included a settlement agreement and a stipulated order that were left out of Connor’s decision.
The Gelman Sciences team said they would be taking Connor’s decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals in the near future.
To this, Connors replied he would welcome any future judgements made by the Michigan Court of Appeals and is interested in whether the Court of Appeals would deem his order appropriate.
On the other side of the court, representatives of the interveners said they were still concerned that the provisions in the fourth consent judgement would not be substantial enough to sufficiently ensure high water quality in Ann Arbor. At Monday’s hearing, the interveners had also proposed installing an additional eight-well system for monitoring and had asked Gelman to release an in-depth map further detailing the extent and spread of the pollution. The interveners’ attorneys said they were open to implementing the measures now, however, and would reevaluate their progress throughout the coming year.
After the two main sides of the case expressed their positions, Connors opened up the discussion to anyone else attending the public hearing. Central Michigan University professor Lawrence Lemke, chairperson of the department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in the Institute for Great Lakes Research, said he thought the order was reasonable given that the proposed measures would likely require ongoing review anyway.
“I think that this idea of implementing what’s contained within the proposed fourth consent judgement now is a step in the right direction,” Lemke said. “I think it’s entirely likely that it will take more than a year to implement all of the things that are contained within the proposed fourth consent judgement.”
Roger Rayle, chairperson of Scio Residents for Safe Water, echoed the interveners’ concerns that the proposed fourth consent judgement would not adequately address the environmental problem without added water quality monitoring and protections.
“When it comes to clean drinking water, we have to be as consistent as the compound we’re trying to clean up,” Rayle said.
Connors also asked several of the attendees, including Ann Arbor resident Beth Collins, to share their impressions of the court order. Collins said she grew up in Ann Arbor and thinks the proposed changes represent a step in the right direction.
“Lately, I’ve enjoyed that we’ve been getting some more justice for the public, and the polluter needs to realize that this is 2021 and it’s different than the ‘80s,” Collins said. “We can’t keep polluting the environment.”
Daily Summer News Editor Lily Gooding can be reached at email@example.com.