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Weak standards on dioxane plume clean-up could threaten Ann Arbor drinking water

Feb 18, 2016

Credit Ewashtenaw.org: http://bit.ly/1XCy6qr / Washtenaw County

For the last 30 years, a plume of a colorless, odorless toxic chemical has been steadily creeping toward one of the main water supplies in the city of Ann Arbor.

A plume of an organic solvent called 1,4-dioxane has been slowly spreading as it inches closer and closer to the Huron River.

Matthew Naud, the Environmental Coordinator for the City of Ann Arbor, joined Stateside to explain what a “dioxane plume” is, where it came from, and what is being done to clean it up.

“There was a company called Gelman Sciences over on Wagner Road [on the west side of the city], and they made medical filters, I think it was for kidney dialysis, and they used a solvent called 1,4-dioxane,” said Naud. “It was used on this site for many, many years, I think 800,000 pounds was the number they used, and it was disposed of in a number of ways.”

According to Naud, from the 1960s through the 1980s, it was sprayed on nearby fields and it was removed by using a deep water injection well. A graduate student at the University of Michigan discovered the chemical in a nearby lake, which led to the finding that the area had been contaminated by this chemical.

The state had to sue Gelman Sciences to have it cleaned up, and after Gelman was purchased by Pall Life Sciences, the court order to clean up the contamination carried over to the new owners.

Sabra Briere, a member of Ann Arbor City Council from the first ward, says the clean-up efforts are ongoing, but the spread of the plume hasn't slowed.

“Part of the reason I think there’s not an urgency [to stop the spread of the plume] is because while Ann Arbor gets its water supply from Barton Pond, the mass of the plume is not headed toward Barton Pond,” Briere told Stateside. “The mass of it is headed underneath the whole city going east.”

The people who are affected, according to Briere, are people who get their water from wells.

The regulation of 1,4-dioxane, or lack thereof, is one of the chief concerns for local officials.

“Everywhere else on the planet, they regulate this chemical around three parts per billion or less,” said Naud. “Michigan used to have a standard of three parts per billion.”

The current drinking water standard in the state of Michigan is 85 parts per billion.

According to Briere, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm set the wheels in motion to put tougher restrictions on 1,4-dioxane, but the state government has yet to follow through on it. In fact, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell recently wrote an open letter to MDEQ (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) director Keith Creagh, seeking stricter regulations for it.

“Our big concern is the EPA said this was more toxic, and the state has not responded with a more stringent standard,” said Naud.

When asked why the standards have been lowered over the years, Naud replied: “It’s cheaper for business.”

“We all want our businesses to thrive,” added Briere. “But not at the expense of the community."

“This is about the commitment the state is willing to make consistently to ensure that water is safe,” said Briere. “That a resource that is such an important part of Michigan’s history and Michigan’s glorious benefits is something that we can all enjoy. And that deep commitment that we’re looking to the state to make that when something goes wrong it’s addressed, that’s the needle we want to move. That’s not what we’re seeing when it comes to 1,4-dioxane, and it’s not what we’re seeing in other places. 1,4-dioxane is Ann Arbor’s big issue, but it’s not only in Ann Arbor.”

Evan Pratt, the Washtenaw County water resources commissioner, joined Stateside to lend his expertise, and said the size and scope of the problem should be enough to sound the alarm with the state government in Lansing.

“In the late 80s, the DEQ declared this the second-most polluted site in the state, and it’s bigger now than it was then,” said Pratt.

Pratt says he wants to see more resources devoted to monitoring the plume, as well as a contingency plan for what happens if it does reach the city’s drinking water supply.

Listen to the full segment below to hear interviews with all three guests. The topics include a more in-depth look into the history of the plume, the clean-up efforts, and what the residents of Ann Arbor need to know about the problem.  

Also, click here to listen to our interview of Robert Wagner from the Michigan DEQ as he joined Stateside to respond to the criticism of the dioxane plume regulations and the clean-up in Ann Arbor.