State officials seek to reassure residents on contaminated water at public meeting
In the packed auditorium of Eberwhite Elementary School, representatives from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality explained the implications of newly-proposed cleanup standards for the toxic compound 1,4-dioxane Monday night.
A large underground plume of 1,4-dioxane currently sits in the groundwater below Scio Township and Ann Arbor. The plume was initially caused by improper wastewater disposal by Gelman Sciences of Ann Arbor from 1966 to 1986. 1,4-dioxane has been linked to cancer, as well as kidney and liver damage.
The plume has expanded in the decades since, contaminating over 120 private residential wells with the potential to reach Barton Pond — where the city draws its water supply — and the Huron River in the coming decades.
Public attention toward this issue was reignited by the Flint water crisis, as concern grew nationally over water safety issues. Many residents and local officials believe the DEQ has failed to take sufficient action to control the contamination in the town over the past two decades. In a bid to bypass state regulators, Ann Arbor Township — a separate municipality from the city of Ann Arbor — has publicly considered putting forward a superfund petition to the EPA that would prompt federal intervention.
Currently, the DEQ’s cleanup standard for 1,4-dioxane is 85 parts per billion in groundwater — despite the Environmental Protection Agency stating that 1,4-dioxane carries carcinogenic risk at 3.5 parts per billion. The newly proposed DEQ cleanup standards are 7.2 parts per billion — still above the EPA advisory — and have yet to be subjected the approval process in Lansing.
During the meeting, interim DEQ director Keith Creagh assured residents that although the new cleanup standards have not yet been approved, his agency will be acting as if the new standards are already in place in Washtenaw County. Creagh assumed his current position in December 2015 after his predecessor — Dan Wyant — resigned over his agency’s handling of the Flint water crisis.
The new standard would mean that if a private residential well tested above 7.2 parts per billion, the DEQ would intervene to provide municipal drinking water to that home, as was the case with a Scio Township household in early March, Creagh explained.
“This is an important issue, and you live it every day, and I can’t pretend to know what that is, but it is your community and we need to work together,” Creagh said. “Our first priority is public health, so we’re not waiting for the enforcement standard to kick in.”
Robert Wagner, chief of the DEQ remediation division, said the approval of the new cleanup standard would allow the Michigan attorney general’s office to litigate Gelman Sciences and its parent companies — Pall Life Sciences and Danaher Corporation — to enact a more thorough system for cleaning the contamination. Wagner noted that a court ruling from the Washtenaw County Circuit Court between the polluting corporation and the state restrict what actions can be taken to control the spread of the contamination.
“While we have been at this since the early ‘90s, we are still governed by the court,” Wagner said. “For every action, every strategy, every plan, we potentially have to go to court.”
Wagner also said although the proposed new cleanup standard for 1,4-dioxane is higher than the EPA’s, the EPA benchmark is not legally binding and does not take into account demographic and environmental variables the DEQ used in calculating its proposed 7.2 parts per billion standard.
He also said the proposed standards will need to be subjected to a five-step approval process which includes public stakeholder meetings and must meet the final approval of the Michigan Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. Wagner could not say for certain how long this process would take.
State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) — who hosted the town hall — said he is doubtful his colleagues in Republican-controlled state legislature would take warmly to the new proposed regulations, but did not foresee the legislature outright rejecting the proposed rules, pointing out that the Michigan Chamber of Commerce did not oppose the proposal.
“I don’t want to bet in favor of the environmental sensitivity of my colleagues,” Irwin said. “However, JCAR does not have to act in the affirmative for these rules to go into place, JCAR actually has to recommend to the entire House and the Senate to reject the rules, and the entire House and Senate have to vote to reject the rules. This has never happened since JCAR was set up in the way it’s currently set up.”
Irwin also blamed the broader situation on poor environmental regulations in the state for the current situation.
Multiple residents raised concerns during the meeting over whether contaminated groundwater could seep into their basements. Although the DEQ officials were confident that the plume is at greater depths than most basements, they were unable to provide a definitive answer and promised to investigate further.
Despite the cordial environment of the meeting, the frustration of the local residents became visible at some points toward the state regulators.
“This is a carcinogen! I don’t have a bottle of it in my hand like people from Flint, but I’m telling you it’s just as dangerous if not more … we can’t show you how contaminated we are,” one local resident said to the state officials, receiving thunderous applause from the residents in attendance. “You haven’t protected the people of Ann Arbor!”