A slow moving disaster

As the 1,4 dioxane plume moves towards the Huron River, residents wonder what can – and will – be done

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By Brittany Dekorte
Editor

While water worries in Texas and Flint top the headlines, some may have forgotten the water worries closer to home: a plume of 1,4-dioxane that has been slowly moving through the groundwater of Washtenaw County.

The plume is left over from filter manufacturing company Gelman Sciences, which discharged large amounts of the chemical at its property on Wagner Road just west of Ann Arbor in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Since cleanup started in the ‘80s, 100,000 pounds of the solvent has been pulled out of the water, but it continues to exist in carcinogenic levels in the groundwater. According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality right now the levels will cause 1 case of cancer in every 100,000 people every 30 years.

The plume is traveling toward the Huron River, creating concerns that it may eventually contaminate Ann Arbor’s drinking water supply.

There is also a fear of basement vapors. Dioxane can escape the water into the air and fill the air of basements at dangerous levels, similar to radon gas.

The dioxane plume has been moving north and east from the former Gelman plant in Scio Township, toward Ann Arbor. State Rep. Donna Lasinski, a Democrat who represents Scio, calls the spill “a slow moving disaster.” According to Roger Rayle, of the Coalition for Action on Removal of Dioxane, this is the largest ongoing cleanup of 1,4 dioxane ever.

According to CARD’s estimate, this isn’t a problem that will go away anytime soon, either. The timespan that this plume could cause damage on is hundreds of years, if left unchecked.

Besides the issue of the contamination itself is what the contamination is doing to property values, the local economy and the county’s ability to draw in new businesses and residents. Rick Taylor, a real estate agent in the Ann Arbor Area, sees the plume affecting home buying.

“We have to disclose to potential buyers about the plume,” said Taylor. “It affects your budget, it affects homeowner values…
we’re doing everything we can to sell a property for as much money
as we can, but we have to disclose that [1,4] dioxane is in the area, and you might as well tell the buyer that someone killed themselves in the home, it has the same effect.”

So, what is happening to fix this? Most citizens at a recent meeting on the issue say the answer is: not enough, not fast enough.

At a town hall meeting at the end of August, more than 130 citizens crowded into a conference room at the Ann Arbor District Library. Those in attendance were overwhelmingly in support of a “Polluter Pay” outcome, in which the cost of clean up is flipped borne by the company that caused the damage in the first place.

As of yet, this isn’t happening.

There is currently a lawsuit between the county and Pall Corp., the current owners of Gelman Sciences.; a nondisclosure agreement prevents either party from speaking about the case. Democratic State Rep. Yousef Rhabi gave his take on part of the hold up.

“The reality is, the process in Lansing is pretty messed up,” said Rhabi. “The manufacturing community in Michigan has an immense role in the rule setting process and that has to do with their political contributions  to other elected officials in our state, whether it’s at the executive level or other state legislators. So when the MDEQ is trying to do the right thing, often what they are running up against is massive contributions from the manufacturers who have a vested interest in making sure that 300 chemicals don’t have that standard.”

And while the county waits, the MDEQ continues to test creeks, basements and groundwater, trying to monitor the spread. A realistic timeline for clean up, or even a budget for cleaning up, has yet to be laid out. The closest estimate MDEQ representative Mitch Adelman could give was “tens of millions of dollars”.

“We want this done. We wanted it done yesterday.  We wanted it done 10 years, 20 years ago. It should never have happened in the first place… But it always comes to the last second,” said Rhabi.

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