The cast of players involved with Ann Arbor’s dioxane problem has changed many times over in the thirty years since the contamination was first discovered. Some say that’s part of the problem: it’s hard to stay motivated to tackle problems that go on seemingly indefinitely. Luckily, there are a few people in the community who have stuck with it, keeping the issue in the public forum. In this segment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” we talk with one of them.
David Fair (DF): This is 89.1 WEMU, I’m David Fair and welcome to “The Green Room.” For three decades, portions of Ann Arbor’s groundwater have been contaminated by 1,4 dioxane. The source is the old Gelman Sciences facility in Scio Township. In this 21st installment in our ongoing series on the Ann Arbor area’s contamination plume, Barbara Lucas takes you back inside “The Green Room” to explore the role persistence plays in the situation—past, present and future.
Barbara Lucas (BL): It’s been 23 years now that Ann Arbor resident Roger Rayle has tracked the Gelman plume. He uses cutting-edge computer graphics to illustrate the plume’s expansion. One of his illustrations is hanging at the Ann Arbor Art Center. It’s in an exhibit celebrating ordinary citizens speaking out for change. We’re downtown Ann Arbor, walking to the gallery.
Roger Rayle: There were some internal whistleblowers who didn't get listened to until Dan Bicknell, as an outsider, blew the whistle and had the persistence to stay with it.
BL: He’s referring to graduate student Dan Bicknell’s relentless insistence in the mid-1980s—in the face of enormous opposition—that dioxane from Gelman Sciences was escaping into the environment.
Rayle: Where would we be if Dan hadn't done that? They could've still been using it for another 20 years before it showed up anywhere!
BL: On the second floor of the Art Center, there’s his map, hanging in a corner.
Rayle: Here it is, basically a Google Earth screenshot.
BL: Easy to overlook amongst the sights and sounds of avant-garde art, it belies the mountains of data points and decades of drama regarding the spreading plume. For instance, the discovery in 2000 of the “E-Plume”—an additional 2 miles of contamination, previously unknown. Rayle says the company had asserted that deep aquifer was protected from the dioxane above by a layer of clay.
Rayle: But there are holes in that layer.
BL: He says the citizen watchdogs noticed the company wasn’t going very deep when drilling monitor wells to check for contamination. They worried: how did they know for sure the deep aquifer was protected by clay?
Rayle: So we advocated strongly that all new wells go at least to bedrock. And sure enough they found some hits at these deeper levels.
BL: Eventually, sample results reached over 4,000 ppb in the E-plume.
Rayle: It was a real shock to everybody.
BL: He says if they’d been sampling at the deep levels from the start…
Rayle: They might've prevented the contamination of the city’s supply well.
BL: The Northwest Supply well supplied 5% of Ann Arbor’s drinking water before it was shut down.
Rayle: So there was a lot of negligence on the part of the company and the state—the DNR and then later the DEQ—to not sample all of the layers so we could prevent more contamination.
BL: Because the geology is so complex, it’s very hard to predict the movement of groundwater. Could a major shock like this happen again?
Rayle: There's a lot of unknowns still. That's why it's so important to keep up with the monitoring, keep up with the data.
BL: What does the latest data show?
Rayle: Two wells that are at the boundary which were supposed to be non-detect…
BL: He says they’re now over 1 ppb.
Rayle: So these are solid hits.
BL: He calls them “sentry” wells.
Rayle: These sentry wells are canaries in the coal mine. If you find something going on there then you start worrying.
BL: Being mortal, Roger Rayle can’t continue his totally volunteer watchdog role forever. Will someone take his place when he’s gone? He can only hope.
Rayle: We have to be as persistent as the compound we are trying to get cleaned up! Dioxane is very persistent. Once it gets anaerobic in the groundwater, basically it stays there forever.
(BL): Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU.
(DF): The Green Room is a presentation of the WEMU News Department. To listen to the first 20-pieces in our series on the Ann Arbor Area’s 1,4 dioxane plume visit the Green Room archive at wemu-dot-org. I’m David Fair, and this is 89-1 WEMU.