City Council to seek answers regarding groundwater contamination

Thursday, February 25, 2016 - 5:50pm

Ann Arbor City Council will hear the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's plans for moving forward with the plume of toxic 1,4-dioxane in the city’s groundwater during a Monday working session.

The contaminated plume — located underground in Scio Township and Ann Arbor, and creeping toward the Huron River, which is where the city's drinking water is drawn from — was caused by Gelman Sciences’ improper disposal of 1,4-dioxane from 1966 to 1986. Pall Corporation, which acquired Gelman in 1997, is the company currently liable for the contamination.

Public scrutiny on this issue was re-energized in recent months by the Flint water crisis, and local leaders have been clamoring for DEQ to take a harder stance.

In a Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting earlier this month, DEQ representative Robert Wagner said state regulations and legal settlements dictate Pall is only required to “risk manage,” rather than clean, the dioxane plume.

According to the City Council meeting agenda, Pall Corporation was invited to give a presentation at the meeting but will not be attending.

Councilmember Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) said her first priority is to learn how soon DEQ’s cleanup guidelines for 1,4-dioxane will be revised. With revised guidelines, Briere hopes that further legal action could be taken against Pall Corporation to compel a more thorough monitoring and cleanup system.

The current DEQ standard for 1,4-dioxane is 85 parts per billion in groundwater, despite EPA standards saying 3.5 parts per billion is carcinogenic. Ann Arbor has been pushing for the revision of DEQ standards for the past three years. Wagner had assured the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners that revised standards would be released soon despite unforeseen delays in releasing them in the past.

“Once we have (revised standards), the city and the county are in a position to go to the courts, and ask the courts to enforce to that standard instead of the 85 parts per billion,” Briere said. “That allows us to open up the entire discussion about how the enforcement works, what the cleanup looks like, how effective the cleanup needs to be.”

She added that she thought that the current agreement between the state and Pall Corporation overwhelmingly favors Pall.

“Unlike every other major pollution issue in this state, the state of Michigan is paying for this, not the polluter,” Briere said. “All the time that the DEQ spends on this is time that they can’t spend on other things.”

Councilmember Chip Smith (D–Ward 5) echoed many of Briere’s points, adding that he is disappointed in DEQ’s continued failure to update its 1,4-dioxane standards, and that there is a lack of trust in the community of DEQ.

“Frankly, DEQ’s got a little bridge building to do on Monday night,” Smith said. “We’ve been very patiently waiting for (the new standards) as this plume creeps closer and closer to the river and impacts more and more private wells.”

“Their failure to deliver on this is a pretty big failure, in light of the DEQ’s failures in other areas — namely Flint — I think there is rightfully an awful lot of concern in our community,” Smith added.