Op-ed: Is the University responsible for local issues?

Wednesday, June 26, 2019 - 6:12pm

Dioxane, a potentially carcinogenic chemical that has leaked into Ann Arbor’s aquifer slowly over two decades from Gelman Sciences, Inc., was found in our drinking water on two separate occasions in the Huron River and Barton Pond. The plume, discovered in well water in 1985, has migrated in the groundwater over the last three decades and now encompasses a much larger area. While the federal, state and local governments have been entrenched in legal battles over this environmental issue, the threat to public health has steadily increased.

As a Masters of Social Work student at the University of Michigan, and as someone who cares not only about the environment but also the health and well-being of students and community members who drink this water, it is alarming that this issue has gone unresolved for decades. Across the state and country, similar issues have taken several years and an abundance of resources to resolve (FlintBaltimore and several others). As a result of agonizingly slow and expensive undertakings, residents are left endangered, confused and often defeated, lacking a real solution. The longer we wait for the government to devise a plan, the longer Ann Arbor residents have to worry about their ability to feel safe and healthy while enjoying the natural resources around them.

While some feel powerless to address issues like the dioxane plume, I am not alone in feeling the University of Michigan should look locally for solutions and start doing the necessary research regarding this potential health hazard. Perhaps the University lacks a sense of urgency — even government officials litigating the issue seemingly lack this resolve. Or maybe the donation made by the family of the founder of Gelman Sciences, Inc. to U -M’s Risk Science Center creates a conflict of interest and gives pause to action. Regardless of the root cause, the wealth of knowledge and potential resources from a university should not be held back when justice and the safety of the community is at stake.

In social work, our mission is to promote social justice and the dignity and worth of all individuals regardless of race, socio-economic status and background. This includes advocating for our community and its members, ensuring they have access to the resources needed to live healthy and fulfilling lives. Issues like the dioxane plume disproportionately affect communities of color and vulnerable people. Given this marked disparity, it is everyone’s responsibility to raise awareness and promote action around issues in order to serve these marginalized communities that may not have the resources to adequately advocate for themselves.  This call applies not only to social workers, but to all schools within the University of Michigan that seek to produce leaders within their field of study and continue to build the prestige of the University.

At the University of Michigan, we claim to be “the Leaders and Best.” But, is that motto fulfilled in our relationship with nearby communities? When we, as a University community, choose to bypass opportunities to perform research and develop high-impact projects that create positive change in our own neighborhoods, we fail to uphold that standard. By investing research capabilities and skills in environmental safety and public health projects, we could utilize the privilege afforded to the University of Michigan and play an active leadership role in the community, laying the groundwork for positive community interaction. Reassuringly, several students have already taken up this call and have begun to pioneer their own initiatives to support their community.

The environmental and health impacts for the greater Ann Arbor area due to the dioxane plume worsen as time passes, and there is still no solution in sight. The University of Michigan should leverage its resources and the skills of students and faculty to develop innovative solutions to this decades-long problem and, in doing so, renew its dedication to serving its neighbors. Neglecting to do so will result in further contamination and ill-placed reliance on time-consuming legal action.

Megan Van Kooten is a Masters of Social Work Candidate at the University of Michigan.