Activists express frustration with state over Ann Arbor water safety
Amid some public concerns over the safety of Ann Arbor’s groundwater, representatives of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality took questions from local leaders at Washtenaw County’s Board of Commissioners working session on Thursday evening.
The contaminated plume of groundwater that several residents have raised concerns about — which lies beneath Scio Township and Ann Arbor and is slowly moving toward the Huron River — originated from Gelman Sciences, which improperly disposed of 1,4-dioxane into the groundwater between 1966 and 1986.
However, 1,4-dioxane has never been detected in Ann Arbor’s water supply, and a network of monitoring wells have been maintained by the DEQ and Gelman-Pall Corporation, Gelman’s successor company as of 1992.
Public scrutiny regarding the Gelman Plume had been largely dormant for years, and was reignited after the Flint water crisis.
On Feb. 1, Ann Arbor City Council unanimously approved a resolution demanding the DEQ adopt more stringent cleanup standards, in response to calls for action from members of the public.
Current DEQ cleanup standards for dioxane are set at 85 parts per billion in groundwater, despite the fact that EPA guidelines state that dioxane carries a one in 100,000 cancer risk at 3.5 parts per billion. At the plume’s most concentrated points, test wells have detected concentrations in excess of 1,000 parts per billion.
At Thursday’s meeting, local officials and members of the Washtenaw County Coalition for Remediation of Dioxane — a consortium of local activists and governments — put forth a series of complaints and requests to the DEQ.
CARD members Kristen Schweighoefer, Washtenaw County environmental health director, and Roger Rayle, chair of Scio Residents for Safe Water, demanded the state take more assertive legal action against Pall Corporation to compel a more thorough cleanup. They also said they wanted DEQ to revise its cleanup standards to be in line with the EPA, and voiced worry that a new northward growth of the plume poses an immediate threat to numerous residential drinking wells in Ann Arbor.
“How long can we really let this plume expand without taking aggressive action?” Rayle said.
Mike Moran, Ann Arbor Township supervisor, expressed frustration toward the state government for failing to address the issue, adding that he was actively exploring turning the plume into a superfund site that would prompt EPA intervention. Superfunds are sites targeted by the agency for cleanup.
“Simply stated, I have lost my confidence in the state of Michigan to do what needs to be done to bring this to a satisfactory conclusion,” Moran said.
In response, Bob Wagner, chief of the DEQ Remediation and Redevelopment Division, acknowledged the importance of the group’s concerns and said the DEQ was acting on them. He added, however, that he is operating under court-imposed constraints limiting what the Gelman-Pall Corporation can be compelled to comply with.
“We’re not in a situation where groundwater restoration is going to happen; we are in a risk management situation” said Wagner.
Wagner also said the state’s dioxane safety standards would be revised soon, though he acknowledged that previous deadlines for revision had been missed due to unforeseen complications in the department’s calculations.
“While it has taken us some time, and I’ll be the first to say that we didn’t hit our projected end date, we are still working on it, we are working on it every day, every weekend. This will get done,” Wagner said.
Yousef Rabhi (D), county vice chair of the Board of Commissioners, criticized Wagner for what he viewed as DEQ’s inadequate answers. He also accused the department of not being beholden to public interests.
"Frankly, if you guys give me a timeline, I'm just as much going to assume you're not going to get it done in 30 years," Rabhi said to Wagner. "Your timelines have no credibility with me because you've broken my trust multiple times."
“What am I going to tell my constituents, ‘Sorry, you’re never going to get that water cleaned up?’ That’s what I heard,” continued Rabhi. “I am going to do everything in my power to fight that, and to make sure the DEQ must clean up this environmental catastrophe.”