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The Green Room: The Ann Arbor Area's 1,4 Dioxane Plume In -Part 3

Since 1995, 4,000 prohibition zones have been put in place in Michigan to “manage risk,” i.e. prevent people from coming into contact with contaminated soil or water.  In this installment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas looks at how the balance between cleaning up pollution versus managing the risk is playing out when it comes to the Ann Arbor area's 1.4 dioxane plume. 

David Fair (DF):  The 1,4 dioxane plume that is contaminating groundwater in the Ann Arbor area continues to slowly spread. The subject is an ongoing focus on 89-1 WEMU’s environmental feature, “The Green Room.” Last week, we discussed the possibility of using a more effective method to clean up the instead of letting it spread to private wells and threaten city water sources.  This week, Barbara Lucas explores the question:  if it’s easier and cheaper in the long run to nip it in the bud, why isn’t that the current strategy?

Barbara Lucas (BL):  In 2011, Pall Life Sciences was allowed by the county circuit court to reduce their rate of cleaning up Ann Arbor’s groundwater—by about 60%. I’m trying to understand the logic behind dragging things out.  Pall has refused comment.  So I look for legislative insight from Lana Pollack, former Michigan state senator. 

Lana Pollack:  They created a situation where certain areas could be declared forever contaminated, couldn’t have certain functions on them—a schoolyard, a park, perhaps housing.

BL-She says allowing polluted soil or groundwater to be declared off limits—a “prohibition zone”— became a legal alternative to cleanup.  We’re in her home close to the Huron River, east of Ann Arbor’s dioxane plume.  I ask about the Polluter Pay law.

Pollack:  …and passed the legislation was signed by Governor Blanchard in Gallup Park over here in 1990.  Five years later it wasn’t exactly repealed but it was gutted—in a couple of very important ways—under the Engler administration. 

BL: The Polluter Pay law was Pollack’s bill.  It held polluters in Michigan financially responsible for the contamination they created, forcing cleanups.  But Pollack says 1994 saw big changes in the legislature.  The use of prohibition zones escalated. 

Pollack:  You simply sacrifice future generation’s use of those areas because a past generation says we aren’t going to clean up what we allowed to be contaminated.

BL: She says the Flint lead crisis may be causing a change in attitudes.

Pollack: This is the first time we’ve seen a discussion that gives me hope, in Michigan and nationally, of bringing back the protections we once had.

BL: Matt Naud is the City of Ann Arbor’s environmental coordinator.  He’s encouraged by the state’s proposal to tighten it’s dioxane standard, from 85 to 7.2 parts per billion.

Matt Naud: We think things could be happening faster, but with the change in the standard I firmly believe that the company is going to work with us, and put in wells in appropriate places that reassure us it's not going north.  I don’t think Pall Corporation has any interest in any of this getting to Barton Pond.

BL: Naud says the cleanup’s been driven by the state standard. 

Naud:  If we had had a 7.2 standard, I think that would've been a very different conversation back then.

BL: I mention that some people just don't like the idea of the plume being there, and spreading.

Naud: More could be done! Yes, no question. A lot of this is going to depend on the state and the AG's [Attorney General’s] office willingness to go back into court and take a look at what's going on with this remediation.

BL: Apparently, this point in the process is significant. 

Naud:  We had a judge who didn’t allow very much science in the courtroom.  There was no evaluation—at least in any public way—in the court about, ‘What are the different technologies that are out there, what is best available technology?’

BL: He says the state’s lax dioxane standard, that allowed Ann Arbor’s plume to spread, was a result of the political climate.

Naud: You know, if you want to have different kind of clean up, you need a different kind of legislature.

BL: Naud says Michigan is riddled with contamination sites left by landfills, gas stations, and dry cleaners.  He says now with the Flint lead crisis, pressure may be mounting to address them, rather than ignore them.

Naud:  There's stuff being left in the ground that we don't know where it's going to be 100 years from now, and I think that’s the piece the state’s really going to have to struggle with.

Fade out coffee shop sounds.

Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News.

DF: Announcer Tag: If a more effective strategy were to be used to cleanup Ann Arbor’s dioxane plume, what would constitute  a safe cleanup level?  Stay tuned as we explore this and more in weeks to come on “The Green Room.,”  It is a presentation of the WEMU News Department, produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner.


Polluter Pay Law

Third Amendment to the Consent Judgement

Washtenaw County Public Health 1,4-Dioxane Fact Sheet

DEQ Director to visit Ann Arbor to Discuss Dioxane Plume 6-8:30 April 18th, Eberwhite Elementary


Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.
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