Ann Arbor Township considers federal intervention for groundwater contamination

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 - 8:46pm

Ann Arbor Charter Township is exploring the possibility of petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency to designate a local dioxane plume contaminating groundwater beneath the township as a superfund site.

Doing so would grant the EPA, rather than the state, authority to clean the toxic matter, a move that’s desirable for many township leaders due to their lack of confidence in the state’s ability to resolve the problem. However, Ann Arbor officials say they are unsure if they will support a move by the township to do so.

Improper wastewater disposal by Gelman Sciences, an Ann Arbor life sciences firm, between 1966 to 1986 created a large, slow-moving plume of the toxin 1,4-dioxane underneath Washtenaw County. The plume has contaminated groundwater and is expected by local officials to reach the Huron River in the coming decades.

Though the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has maintained a network of monitoring wells to track the plume since 1992, city leaders have long been critical of the state’s response, and the Flint water crisis has re-energized public scrutiny on this issue.

In a February meeting of county leaders, Ann Arbor Township Supervisor Michael Moran told Michigan DEQ representatives he had “lost his confidence” in the state’s ability to control the contamination. Moran also said his township was exploring the option of turning the plume into a superfund site.

Monday night, the Board of Trustees for Ann Arbor Charter Township — which is a separate municipality from the city of Ann Arbor — unanimously authorized Moran to petition the EPA for superfund status.

In an interview, Moran said Michigan’s regulatory environment has failed to meaningfully manage the contaminated water, and the state’s recent promises to increase funding on monitoring and introduce more stringent cleanup standards for 1,4-dioxane are insufficient.

“Michigan statutes are not aimed at getting a cleanup of pollution, but rather managing the risk of pollution, and those are wildly different concepts,” Moran said, adding the EPA doesn’t operate under these constraints.

However, other local leaders say they are still unsure if the township’s decision was the best choice. Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor (D) said in an interview with the Daily that while the EPA would likely lead a more comprehensive cleanup of the contaminated water, the stigma of superfund status could damage property values in the city.

“The EPA is obviously very well-respected and tremendously valuable; however, the declaration of a superfund site has other consequences,” Taylor said. “If a portion of Ann Arbor is declared a superfund site, one expects that will reduce property values, even though the toxicity is of no immediate concerns to the immediately proximate residents.”

Taylor did not completely rule out supporting the petition and said the city will need to study the issue further before making a decision. He added the city’s current plan is to work the Michigan DEQ and Michigan Attorney General’s office to push the original polluter to perform a more comprehensive cleanup. In interviews, City Councilmembers Chip Smith (D–Ward 5) and Graydon Krapohl (D–Ward 4) echoed Taylor’s points.

Moran said he does not intend to move forward with a superfund petition without consensus from the city of Ann Arbor and the rest of Washtenaw County. He noted a consultant working for a consortium of county officials had reported superfund status would not significantly hurt local property values, based on previous studies.

“It’s an issue that needs consideration from all local governments,” Moran said.

However, he also noted the township could still move forward without the approval of all the county’s municipalities.

Moran said the Michigan DEQ has failed, and other options to control the pollution need to be explored.

“After 20 years, the pollution plume is getting bigger and bigger, and there’s an inadequate response,” Moran said. “How long are you willing to keep playing with the same people?”

When reached for comment on Tuesday, Robert Wagner, Michigan DEQ remediation chief, said he respects Ann Arbor Charter Township’s decisions and is willing to work with the EPA if necessary.