City Council votes to further legal action in dioxane plume case

Tuesday, November 1, 2016 - 8:42pm

Following the discovery of shallow groundwater contaminated with the toxic compound 1,4-dioxane in October, the city of Ann Arbor took steps to pursue new legal action against the responsible party Tuesday night.

City Council voted unanimously during a special session to pursue a new legal intervention in the state’s decades-old settlement against the original polluter during a special session.

The contamination in the groundwater is believed to have originated from the Gelman plume, the result of improper wastewater disposal by the Ann Arbor-based company Gelman. From 1966 to 1986, the waste created a large slow-moving mass of carcinogenic water — or plume — beneath the city of Ann Arbor, as well as Scio and Ann Arbor Townships. The company has since been purchased by Pall Corporation.

The plume, first discovered in 1985, has forced the closure of more than 100 private residential wells and could reach the Huron River in the coming decades, according to county projections. Residents have also expressed concerns about potential exposure to the compound from groundwater seepage into basements on the city’s west side.

At a community town hall held last week regarding the discovery of shallow contamination, Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor told residents the city intends to launch a new legal action to achieve standing to negotiate with the polluter. Under the current consent judgement in the 1992 case, only the state of Michigan can negotiate with Pall Corporation. City Council had earlier discussed the possibility of pursuing the option in a closed-door special session earlier last week.

In 2006, Ann Arbor formally settled with Pall Corporation for $500,000 and lost any negotiating rights under the state’s original 1992 lawsuit and consent judgement against Pall Corporation.

In an interview, Taylor said if the Washtenaw County District Court accepts an official motion for intervention from the city’s attorney, Ann Arbor would have the right to directly negotiate with Pall Corporation regarding cleanup and pollution control, along with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

“The current court case is between the state and the polluter; we’re looking to have a seat at the table,” Taylor said. “We’re looking to have a seat at the table as the discussion moves forward. You can’t have a seat at the table; we can’t be in the room where that conversation occurs if we are not a party to the case.”

While Taylor said he had the support of the MDEQ director to take this step, specific details of the city’s legal strategy still must be finalized and the timeline for filing a new motion are to be determined.

However, some local residents present at the special session expressed skepticism as to whether the city’s strategy would be sufficient to mitigate the public health risks posed by the plume.

Vince Caruso, a founding member of a coalition of county-wide officials to combat the plume Allen’s Creek Watershed Group, said he is not confident the MDEQ will be able to adequately control the contamination even with new legal action, pointing to the agency’s handling of the Flint water crisis. He added that he believed the only way forward would be to petition for an Environmental Protection Agency superfund to bring federal intervention.

“I think we have good evidence the DEQ is not up to this effort,” Caruso said. “I think we need to move and I think the EPA has technology, they have scientists, they have large numbers of staff that can come in, they have the Department of Justice … they will go after the responsible party, and they’ve done that before.”