Tensions flare in City Council discussion over pedestrian safety, dioxane

Tuesday, December 4, 2018 - 6:54pm

Ann Arbor City Council heard concerns about the growing Gelman dioxane plume and discussed sidewalk safety efforts at its meeting Monday night. Both topics have been central to the platforms of Jeff Hayner, D-Ward 1, and Kathy Griswold, D-Ward 2, two newcomers to the council.

Environmental toxicologist Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an Ann Arbor resident, pushed the council to address recent spikes in dioxane levels in West Park.

“I am here to bring you the urgency of the situation because I feel that nobody is really alarmed at the recent findings that West Park in Ann Arbor is showing 19 parts per billion dioxane,” Savabieasfahani said. “What it all amounts to is this: We don’t know how big this thing is, how far this thing is. I also learned that from Allen Creek, 19 parts per billion dioxane is getting into Huron River, so if you’re worried whether it will get there or not, I tell you, it’s there. Be worried. I’m worried. A lot of people in Ann Arbor are worried.”

Recent tests revealed an increase in the levels of the toxin present in groundwater collected from storm sewers in Ann Arbor’s West Park, a spike from 4.4 parts per billion less than a year ago up to 19 parts per billion. In 2016, the state issued stricter rules regarding acceptable levels of dioxane, lowering the standard from 85 parts per billion to 7.2 parts per billion.

Exposure to large amounts of 1,4-Dioxane, a synthetic industrial chemical used in goods including paint strippers and dyes, can cause kidney and liver damage as well as respiratory problems, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The Gelman plume is a primary concern for Hayner, who has repeatedly called for the city to take action to address the contamination. At the meeting Monday night, Hayner agreed with Savabieasfahani’s complaints.

“It’s a slowly developing trainwreck and we do need to do something about it,” Hayner said. “We really feel that it’s necessary that we compel the polluters to pay. We also feel that it is a problem. It’s a big problem, and we want to deal with it.”

Improperly disposed wastewater from Gelman Sciences Inc., a manufacturing company based in Ann Arbor, caused the underground plume, which was first discovered in 1985 and has been gradually spreading since then. The company is the defendant in litigation brought by the city of Ann Arbor, Scio Township, the Huron River Watershed Council, Washtenaw County and the state of Michigan.

Councilmember Ali Ramlawi, D-Ward 5, agreed that the plume should be dealt with, but suggested Ann Arbor’s drinking water was not as dangerous as some people feared.

“I took a tour down to the water plant last week," Ramlawi said. "We have a really exceptional city staff taking a hard look at PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) and dioxane and all the other issues that are being thrown at our municipality and I’m feeling confident and comfortable that our drinking water is just as safe as anything you can pull out of the ground. I’m sorry, it can be debated, but I drink it, I drink it every day. Hopefully that continues to be the case and we can address these other concerns that we have.”

The council also discussed plans for the Fuller Road Sidewalk Project, an initiative that, among other things, will relocate a crosswalk near the entrance to Gallup Park that pedestrians use to reach Huron High School. The project follows an audit conducted by city staff on ways to improve pedestrian safety in the area. In October 2016, high school student Justin Tang was struck by a car and killed while using the crosswalk.

Griswold, a longtime advocate for pedestrian safety in the city, expressed doubts that the city’s engineers were especially suited to handle the task.

“We have a professional engineering staff in the transportation department, unfortunately, that is the same staff in total — I’m not focusing on an individual — but in total that allowed this crosswalk to go unilluminated after people including myself pleaded and begged council to please fund a streetlight,” Griswold said. “This is the same transportation department that has allowed crosswalks to go without proper signage, without proper markings, and we need to have a professional engineer that specializes in pedestrian safety take a look at this evaluation, and we need to add such a person to our team because not all professional engineers are created equally.”

City Administrator Howard Lazarus disagreed with the notion that the city’s engineers lacked the necessary expertise.

“It is wholly inappropriate to criticize a team of professional engineers employed by the city who have no other thing on their mind than providing the safest possible route to school for our kids,” Lazarus said.

Councilmember Julie Grand, D-Ward 3, echoed Lazarus’s comments.

“We do have professionals on staff and we ask them to do something and they came forward with what I thought was an incredibly sensible and well-reasoned option for us,” Grand said. “Insulting them gets us nowhere. We can create all the policy in the world, but if we don’t have a good relationship with our staff it’s not going to get implemented.”