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The Green Room: The Ann Arbor Area's 1,4 Dioxane Plume-Part 9

In 1980 Congress created the Superfund to clean up hazardous waste sites that have passed criteria placing them on the “National Priorities List.” If and when funding becomes available for a site, the EPA works with the state’s DEQ to remediate it.  When polluters can’t be made to pay to clean them up, the Superfund pays, using taxpayer money. In Michigan, there are currently 65 sites on the National Priorities List.  Should Ann Arbor become one of them?


David Fair (DF):  As Ann Arbor’s frustration grows with its spreading 1, 4 dioxane plume, some are calling for the federal government to step in and help address the issue with a “Superfund designation.” In the 9th segment of this “Green Room” series, Barbara Lucas explores the question, “Is Superfund the answer?”

Barbara Lucas (BL):  I’m kayaking towards the mouth of Honey Creek.  It empties here into Barton Pond, where Ann Arbor gets its drinking water.  Many aren’t happy that treated water is sent down Honey Creek, considering a daily maximum of 22 ppbdioxane can be left in the discharge water.  The dioxane is diluted to the point of non-detection when it hits the pond.  More concerning is the prospect of the huge  underground plume reaching the river.  Dr. LarryLemkeof Wayne State University says his modeling shows that may have already happened, downstream of the pond.

Dr. Larry Lemke:  The implications are, number one, 1,4-dioxane could already be at the Huron River, just undetected because we have such a widely spaced series of monitoring wells.  And number two, when and if it does reach the river it could be traveling there for a long period of time—many, many decades.

BL: At a WashtenawCounty Board of Commissioners meeting, Ann Arbor Township Supervisor Mike Moransays relying on the state DEQ and Attorney General’s office hasn’t worked. 

Mike Moran: Their promised timetable for action has been extended again and again and again.  Simply stated, I’ve lost my confidence that the State of Michiganis willing to do what needs to be done bring this to a satisfactory conclusion.  Something’s got to be done!

BL: He advocates applying for Superfund designation.

Moran: I think that we are more likely to get a more concentrated and effective effort from the U.S. EPAthen we’ve gotten from State of Michigan.

BL: Would the EPA apply their advisory level of 0.35 ppb, as the states of Colorado, New Jersey, and Massachusetts are using?  Not in Michigan, according to Bob Wagner of theDEQ.

Bob Wagner:  No maximum contaminant level for drinking water has been established by EPA.

BL: He says the EPA level of 0.35 ppb is only suggested, it’s not law.  It is not used in other Superfund sites in Michigan, because Superfunds are set up to rely on state criteria.

Wagner: Basically we end up coming back to the state criteria, even for EPA Superfund sites in Michigan.

BL: We discuss the KLAvenue Landfill in Kalamazoo, which has been a Superfund site for 34 years.  Hundreds of wells have been capped, while many other homes are still using dioxane-contaminated water.  Their plume is spreading.  Although it’s a Superfund site, there’s zero treatment.  Why isn’t Superfund living up to its “Super Hero” name in Kalamazoo? 

BL:  I spoke with Professor MurrayBorrello.  He and his Alma College students research the nearby Velsicol Superfund site.  He says when Superfund was first enacted by Congress in 1980, it was funded by a tax on polluting industries.  But in 1995…

Murray Borrello:  It was up for reauthorization, so Congress had to vote on that.  That was right after the Gingrich revolution, under the Reagan administration, and there was a very big movement to deregulate, when it comes to the environment, especially with industry.  So the Superfund tax was not reauthorized. So the tax has run out.  There is no money in Superfund at all.

BL:  He says now General Fund—taxpayer money—keeps Superfund alive, barely.  He says Ann Arbor’s situation is unusual, with an identified polluter, that’s at least attempting a cleanup.

Borrello:  In most Superfund sites you don’t have anybody doing anything on these contaminated sites. 

BL:  But he says even though the application process takes years, and doesn’t guarantee results…

Borrello The pros of making it a Superfund site is that it draws political attention to the issue.

BL:  And that may be enough to spur on advocates of going this route.

Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News

(DF): The Green room is a presentation of the WEMU  News department. To listen to the first eight featureson the Ann Aror area’s 1, 4 dioxane plume visit our website at wemu-dot org. I’m David Fair and this is 89-1 WEMU. 


·         U.S. EPA Superfund

·         National Geographic on Superfund

·         “Professor says dioxane probably has reached Huron River already,” Ryan Stanton, May 13, 2016, MLive.

·         KL Landfill Superfund Site, Kalamazoo

·        “Moving Toxic Plume A Concern For Oshtemo Drinking Water,” Rebecca Thiele, March 25, 2016, WMUK

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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.