City Council will see increased legal costs regarding dioxane plume

Wednesday, June 27, 2018 - 7:31pm

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Emma Richter/Daily

Ann Arbor City Council will see an increase in legal costs regarding clean-up efforts of the 1,4 dioxane plume contaminating the area’s groundwater.

1,4 dioxane is a carcinogenic organic compound used in many industrial settings. The plume was discovered after inspections revealed years of improper wastewater disposal by Gelman Sciences Inc., an Ann Arbor-based manufacturing company. There are fears that the plume could spread to the Huron River and Barton Pond, two main water sources for the city.

The city approved an $150,000 increase to its contract with Bodman PLC, a Detroit-based law firm, in the fight against Gelman to clean up the plume.

Councilmember Jack Eaton, D-Ward 4, feels the council’s involvement in the manner helps residents understand the precedence and severity of the issue.

“The important part of the state litigation that we’re now a party to is that it provides public information about the spread of the plume and how contaminated water is as it spreads underneath the (surface),” Eaton said. “We will be at the table and able to get a voice about the decimating that kind of information.”

Councilmember Chip Smith, D-Ward 5, feels that added expenses will also be more efficient than relying on the federal government to help.

“It’s an expensive legal cost but I think the cost of not doing anything is so much greater,” Smith said. “The EPA is not going to come in and help us. To put our faith in the EPA of Scott Pruitt is wholly ignorant.”

According to Eaton, state regulations have only allowed for mitigation by the state instead of more stringent intervention and clean up. Standards on healthy dioxane levels in residential drinking water were also outdated when previous water testing took place, therefore allowing unsafe water to be used in residential homes. The governor’s office lowered the acceptable standards from 85 parts per billion to 7.2 parts per billion in 2016.

Eaton says area residents do not believe the city has addressed the plume adequately.

“I think the residents of Ann Arbor are concerned that we haven’t done enough over the years,” Eaton said. “This has gone on for decades. The state has been really servile in its efforts to address this and the city hasn’t been a party to this and hasn’t aggressively pursued any action against the company.”

The city wants the company to be held fully responsible for the costs and clean-up efforts.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initially held off on designating the plume as a federal Superfund site, but has been working with city and state officials to resolve the issue. This came after an area petition by Ann Arbor Township, Scio Township and the Sierra Club Huron Valley Group was sent to the EPA to designate the site as a Superfund zone. The city of Ann Arbor did not join this petition.

“As the largest municipality in the area affected by the plume, it just seems like we would take a leadership role and we didn’t,” Eaton said. “Nonetheless, the EPA is now monitoring the litigation between the state and the polluter and we hope that in some point in time they become convinced that they should be ordering actual cleanup.”

When asked why the city did not join the petition, Eaton said he believes City Councilmembers were more worried about property values than the safety of area water.

“It seemed to me that the majority of councilmembers were afraid that if the EPA became involved, it would have a negative effect on property values,” Eaton said. “I, on the other hand, believe that not doing anything about it is going to have a negative impact.”

Smith said he is not convinced all residents are on board with becoming a Superfund site if approved.

“I don’t know what else there is to do,” Smith said. “I know there’s a faction on council who think that petitioning the Superfund would resolve this and would get some kind of white knight in here to clean everything up, but number one: I’m not convinced that talking to residents of the fifth ward, and we are only talking about residents of the fifth ward who are affected by this right now, I don’t get the impression that everyone is on board with us becoming a Superfund site. It impacts people’s houses and property values and how they think about their city if it becomes a Superfund site.”

Smith explained residents living in Superfund sites are legally bound to report it, which can negatively affect property values in the area.

Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski, D-Ward 5, believes the city’s involvement will help resolve the dioxane issue faster and more efficiently.

“I don’t think just trusting the Snyder MDEQ or the Trump EPA to protect the best interest of the city is a viable strategy,” Warpehoski said. “The legal costs, the technical costs, to be at the table and make sure we are building as strong of a case as we can is our best approach to get a better cleanup.”

City Attorney Stephen Postema declined to comment on specific litigation matters regarding the dioxane plume.

“This matter is in litigation, and we do not comment on matters in litigation,” Postema wrote in a statement. “The funds approved by Council are for outside counsel fees in connection with the ongoing litigation.”

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