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Ann Arbor Township might pursue "nuclear option" in spread of contaminated groundwater

Mar 1, 2016

Map showing the approximate size of a plume of contaminated groundwater in Ann Arbor
Credit MAP PRODUCED BY: Environmental Health Division Department of Public Health Washtenaw County, Michigan

A plume of groundwater contaminated with the highly carcinogenic chemical 1,4 dioxane continues to spread beyond Ann Arbor's city limits, threatening private wells in Ann Arbor Township.

Township Supervisor Mike Moran says he is so frustrated at the lack of  legal action by the state attorney general that it's time for the "nuclear option" -- asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to declare the region a Superfund Cleanup site.

Moran says in March, he will ask his township board for permission to make the request to the EPA.

"It's a scary proposition," Moran told the Ann Arbor City Council. "It's not one that we take lightly, and it's not one that we'll take alone. We'll be working with the city and with the county and others. But I've come to the conclusion that something has to be done here, and it's not being done with the people we've been playing with so far.

But Bob Wagner, the DEQ's remediation chief, says proposed new standards for levels of 1,4 dioxane, along with 300 some other chemicals, will be finalized within months. 

And he says the new state standard for 1,4 dioxane will almost certainly be 10 parts per billion or less, down from the current 85 parts per billion. 

The new standard would still have to be approved by the Office of Regulatory Reinvention, which could take up to nine months to approve the changes.

After that, he says, the state attorney general could motion the court to make changes to a consent agreement under which Pall Gelman, the responsible party, must partially clean up the contamination.

The U.S. EPA says a level of 3.5 parts per billion of 1,4 dioxane is safe in drinking water.

Wagner says amendments to the consent agreement would likely require Pall Gelman to install new test wells to make sure the plume is not moving north towards private wells, as well as towards Barton Pond, the source of Ann Arbor's drinking water.

Ann Arbor City Council members also expressed great frustration with the cleanup. 

The contaminated groundwater is widening and moving both west and east. Pall Gelman is treating some of the plume and putting the treated water into Honey Creek, which flows into the Huron River. The treated water still has about 7 parts per billion of 1,4 dioxane in it.

The chemical was first discovered in First Sister Lake in 1984. 

Pall Gelman is believed to have sprayed about 800,000 pounds of 1,4 dioxane onto its property from the 1960s to the 1980s.