BY COLIN MACDOUGALL
The Flint water crisis has drawn attention to the water quality in Michigan and elsewhere. In Washtenaw County, there is growing concern about the spread of 1,4 dioxane, a known carcinogen, which has contaminated aquifers under parts of the city of Ann Arbor, and Scio and Ann Arbor Charter townships.
Discharged by a manufacturer years ago, the chemical has been traveling underground toward the Huron River, despite a variety of remediation efforts.
“Where we find ourselves today is appalling … from a local government’s perspective,” said Christopher Taylor, mayor of Ann Arbor. There has been a “long line of neglect and broken promises,” he said after hearing testimonies from members of the Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane at an Ann Arbor City Council meeting late last month.
The coalition is a partnership of local governments and citizens who are working to address the 1,4 dioxane problem.
The industrial solvent, 1,4 dioxane was released by the company Gelman Sciences, which used the chemical in its manufacturing process. The pollution dates back to the late 1960s.
“The dioxane was disposed of by spraying it into the nearby lagoons,” said Matthew Naud, the Ann Arbor environmental coordinator. “There was some state permission at the time.”
In the late 1960s, state regulations did not recognize the harmful effects that 1,4 dioxane has on humans.
“Dioxane doesn’t break down naturally,” Naud said.
By 1984, there was evidence that the dioxane had made it into the nearby Third Sister Lake. Around that time, it was detected in surrounding water wells.
Gelman Sciences was located on Wagner Road between Liberty and Jackson in Scio Township, just west of Ann Arbor. It has since been bought by a company called the Pall Corp, however, this corporation no longer operates out of that building.
“It’s going to take decades to monitor and control this,” said Roger Rayle, a citizen volunteer who has been following the spread of the dioxane plume through the aquifers for 22 years. As an engineer, Rayle has collected extensive data and mapped the spread of the contamination.
State environmental officials and the courts have had a hand in shaping cleanup efforts that date back to the 1990s. Some have been controversial; none have stopped the migration of the contamination. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality leads the clean-up.
“With a 3.5 parts per billion standard for 1,4 dioxane, there is a 1 in a 100,000 chance of cancer,” Naud said. “At 0.3 ppb, that chance becomes a 1 in a million.”
In the past, the state of Michigan had actually raised the state standard from 3 ppb to 77 ppb, and later to 85 ppb.
The state Department of Environmental Quality is now proposing a stricter standard of 7.2 ppb. Earlier this month, Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Donald Shelton approved an extension of cleanup activities. The changes includes the installation of additional groundwater monitoring wells and the continued the extraction and treatment of tainted water in different locations – at a more effective rate – until Pall can demonstrate that the remaining groundwater does not pose a risk to human and environmental health.
There will be a public meeting about the court order, at 7 p.m. on March 30, at Abbott Elementary School in Ann Arbor.