Ann Arbor is facing water pollution challenges such as the Gelman plume. Dominick Sokotoff/Daily. Buy this photo.

The city of Ann Arbor has a long and complicated history of water contamination, leading to the ongoing concern from Ann Arbor residents about the health and environmental threats water pollution poses to cities. 

Recent cases of sewage spills have led to discussions over what actions the city, state and federal government should take to address the problem. There have been four cases of sewage overflows in Ann Arbor in 2021, two of which were caused by a contractor’s sewer-relining efforts

As a result of the overflows, a total of over 10,000 gallons of sewage were released onto Main Street in February and reached Allen Creek, which connects to the Huron River. Other cases transpired within Nichols Arboretum due to root ball blockages — occurring when tree roots pierce a sewer pipe and grow within it. 1,100 gallons of water were released to the ground surface. In both cases, the sewage was treated with lime to counteract the bacteria and no sewage reached the nearby Huron River or any other waterway.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, City Councilmember Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, stressed the need to fund and regularly test and repair Ann Arbor’s infrastructure to prevent pollution cases like this from occurring.

“You have to fund infrastructure to maintain it, and I would say that for the last two decades, the city has underfunded infrastructure,” Griswold said. “It’s not just funding but it’s (also) having a focus on operational issues.”

Griswold emphasized the importance of “monitoring” versus “managing” when it comes to pollution issues, emphasizing the need for action and consistent maintenance. Griswold also explained that the funding for water infrastructure comes out of enterprise funds financed by stormwater and water fees for Ann Arbor residents, which will not affect the city’s general funding or result in tax increases.

LSA senior Quinn Nolan, communications chair for the environmental justice organization Flint Justice Partnership, spoke to The Daily about the importance of pushing for quality infrastructure to prevent water pollution issues, which he said will continue if the problem is not addressed. 

“I think [the pollution issues] go to show people that any area, any place can be affected by these water issues,” Nolan said. “And I think as infrastructure issues continue to arise with how old a lot of the piping systems are across the country, we’ll just have more issues like this arising in different places… . I think both local and state governments obviously haven’t taken anywhere near the level of sufficient action in Ann Arbor or in Flint, and those crises are still ongoing. And I think as long as those crises are ongoing the government will not have done sufficient action.”

The Gelman plume

In addition to sewage overflows, the Gelman plume has long been a source of concern and controversy for Ann Arbor residents. The plume was originally linked to Gelman Sciences’ disposal of 1,4-dioxane — a possible carcinogen — from their operations aboveground starting in the 1960s and resulting in polluted runoff entering groundwater near the plant. 

After much discussion on whether to request federal aid, the city of Ann Arbor, with the support of the state government and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency in April 2021 to begin the process of assessment to be considered for the National Priorities List. Ann Arbor will also be considered for the EPA Superfund cleanup initiative.

Jill Greenberg, public information officer at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, said EGLE’s priorities are to clean up the plume site and to ensure Gelman Sciences abides by standards set by the state and by the EPA as they conduct their cleanup. 

“Significant protections for public health have been put in place, such as the department establishing a lower 1,4-dioxane groundwater cleanup criterion for the drinking water pathway and the transitioning of affected residents from well water to municipal or bottled water if a drinking water well has 1,4 dioxane at or above 3.0 parts per billion,” Greenberg said. “Our ongoing work to manage the risk from the groundwater plume is part of the effort to protect the environment from further harm.”

Greenberg said EGLE and the City of Ann Arbor have been in constant contact to address the situation, working with both community members and the EPA to ensure the most thorough and effective response. 

“EGLE actively engaged in (discussions about the letter to the EPA) to ensure that support for listing the site on Superfund and turning the site over to the EPA was shared by all communities and citizens impacted by the site,” Greenberg said. “EGLE is committed to supporting local residents and the EPA — should it list the site (as a Superfund location) — in executing the most expeditious and protective actions possible.”

Griswold, a strong supporter of enlisting the help of the EPA to clean up the plume, emphasized the importance of the “dual path at the EPA as well as the court system” to address the issue from a local and federal perspective. 

Jesse Martinez-Kratz, president of the University of Michigan Public Health Sustainability Initiative and graduate student in the School of Public Health, told The Daily that his organization supports the current actions of the city government, but believes local and state officials should have acted faster to prevent possible negative health and environmental impacts.

“The City of Ann Arbor has an important and practical responsibility to ensure the timely and consistent management of all water pollution issues,” Martinez-Kratz said. “However, there have been significant delays in addressing water pollution issues in Ann Arbor. The Gelman dioxane plume has persisted in large part due to the lengthy delay in the declaration as an EPA Superfund site, a process that is still ongoing while the known carcinogen continues to pose a public health risk.”

In terms of water consumption, Ann Arbor water treatment manager Brian Steglitz said, the most serious contaminant of drinking water is PFAS, as opposed to 1,4-dioxane that is able to be mostly removed by inserting ozone into the water. According to Steglitz, the PFAS pollution originates at the Wixom Wastewater Treatment Plant, which treats water from Tribar Technologies, Inc.

“Tribar uses PFAS as a mist suppressant to protect their workers and although they have some treatment on-site, they still contribute the majority of PFAS that enters our watershed,” Steglitz said. “The City of Ann Arbor has augmented its treatment process to reduce PFAS levels in the drinking water to close to undetectable levels. However, it would be preferable if City customers did not need to fund treatment for PFAS and that the polluter was responsible for removing all contamination from their waste streams.”

Recent improvements to the city’s water treatment plant have worked to address the presence of PFAS in the water, including the enhancement of the granular activated carbon filters to separate the PFAS and the implementation of a UV treatment to remove other contaminants. Though Steglitz believes there should be more state regulations for PFAS within wastewater — which may be filtered into a source of drinking water for some communities later on — he praises City Council for “supporting the investments needed to ensure a long-term sustainable and high-quality water supply for the City of Ann Arbor.” 

The concerns about PFAS were reiterated by Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor. Gearhart recently conducted a study on PFAS found in fertilizers that came from wastewater treatment sites around the country. Wastewater treatment aims at removing all waste from the water, said Gearhart, which means that PFAS often shows up in the “sludge” as it is grouped with the waste taken from the water as opposed to the active screening conducted by water treatment facilities. The sludge is then used as fertilizer for farms that have applied for contracts with city governments.

“We think this testing highlights the critical importance of identifying a point and area sources that are contributing to PFAS in the inputs into the wastewater treatment plants and eliminating them, mitigating them, and treating them so that the PFAS doesn’t get there,” Gearhart said. “It’s not good that we take rich organic fertilizer and contaminate it with industrial chemicals when we really want to have this be an ecological cycle where these nutrient-rich waste components are recycled back into the land. … We really want to focus on eliminating PFAS from consumer products from any of these other dispersive uses because ultimately that’s how we can cost-effectively clean this up and prevent it from happening.”

Gearhart also expressed concern for the application of the fertilizer and its contact with crops that are then given to animals or human consumers, which could be very dangerous if contaminated with PFAS. 

Ann Arbor Wastewater treatment manager Earl Kenzie spoke to The Daily about this study and the general wastewater treatment process. In accordance with EGLE requirements and guidelines, the wastewater treatment plant conducts “quarterly testing” for PFAS and reports their results to the state to make more informed actions for waste disposal.

While the wastewater plant does not sell its waste to consumers in the form of fertilizer as the plants within the Ecology Center study did, Kenzie explained how in the winter, their biosolid waste is run through a centrifuge and deposited at a landfill for disposal. In the warmer months, a city contractor works directly with farmers to inject the liquid biosolids into agricultural fields as fertilizer after treatment. The plant provides them with information on state waste regulations and the results of their PFAS testing. Kenzie also described the restrictions farmers who utilize the fertilizer must abide by. 

“There’s certain restrictions the state puts on how much biosolids you can apply to a field,” Kenzie said. “And then there’s restrictions on the farmers as to what they can do with that field for a set amount of time and what they can grow there. And they can’t grow, for instance, direct contact crops… crops that would be used to feed people directly.” 

Kenzie is grateful for the city’s commitment to reducing PFAS input into the Huron River and other waterways. Similar to Gearhart, Kenzie stressed the importance of eliminating the sources of pollution.

“PFAS is used in a lot of different products,” said Kenzie. “If they’re in clothes that are waterproof and they’re washed, that water goes down the drain and comes to us. It’s so pervasive and used everywhere and it’s very hard to eliminate all the sources. So you go after any known industrial sources where there’s a significant amount coming from and that’s what you try to eliminate first.”

Ann Arbor has faced a multitude of water pollution issues throughout the years. Martinez-Kratz emphasized the need to address the issue now to prevent further problems from arising.

“In order to protect the health of the general public, it is essential that the City of Ann Arbor recognize when water pollution is developing or worsening,” Martinez-Kratz said. “This is especially true in places we live, work, and study, as we spend years of our lives in potentially impacted areas. The collective health impact, if these situations worsen, could be detrimental.” 

Daily Staff Reporter Sarah Stolar can be reached at