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The Green Room: The Ann Arbor Area's 1,4 Dioxane Plume-Part 11

It’s been over three decades since Ann Arbor’s groundwater contamination was discovered, and throughout this time, citizen science and community advocacy have had a crucial role.  In this edition  of 'The Green Room,' Barbara Lucas looks at the uphill battle from its earliest steps.

David Fair (DF): From 1966 to 1986, Gelman Sciencesmade medical filters using a cancer-causing chemical which has contaminated some of the Ann Arbor area’s groundwater.When, and where, was the 1,4 Dioxanepollution first discovered?  In this 11th segment of our ongoing Green Room series, Barbara Lucas visits “ground zero” with the man who discovered the contamination 32-years ago. 

Barbara Lucas (BL):  I’m with Dan Bicknell, environmental consultant and president of Global Environment Alliance.  We’re near Wagner Road, just west of the former Gelman Sciences, now Pall Corporation.

Dan Bicknell:  It’s been a while since I’ve been out here.

BL:  I follow Bicknell through a maze of trails through University of Michigan’s Saginaw Woods.

Bicknell:  Unless we needed to go the other way on this gravel trail… 

BL:  I feel like we’re in the middle of nowhere.  Finally, our destination.

Bicknell: That’s the University of Michigan Third Sister Lake.  A beautiful lake.  When we were kids we used to sneak in and swim out here. 

BL:  Where were you when you saw the drain?

Bicknell:  When I was here with some friends we were walking around the lake and I knew it was supposed to be a spring-fed lake and there was supposed to be no discharges coming into it.  But around this area I saw that there was this stream  coming from the Gelman property, into Third Sister Lake.  And I knew that that wasn’t right.

BL: Later, driving by Gelman Sciences, he saw acres and acres of spray irrigation towers.  They were intended to neutralize dioxane in wastewater through uptake in the turfgrass.  But due to a slope…

Bicknell:  …all of the water really just ran off into streams into this creek.

BL: So he went back to the creek, collected a water sample, and took it to a lab.  They found it contained 1,4-dioxane.

BL: You were how old? 

Bicknell:  I was a grad student at the University of Michigan in 1984 when I found this problem out and wrote this small report that was later submitted to the county and the state.

BL: Bicknell says the report wasn’t warmly welcomed by the local paper or the state.

Bicknell:  The DEQ said that my data, ‘wasn’t worth a toot,’ was a quote that they had in the papers. 

BL:  But he persevered.  Report in hand, he accompanied the state to a meeting at the Gelman plant.  He says it was then that they discovered an illegal drain under the parking lot asphalt, discharging dioxane-laden wastewater to the creek. 

BL:  How did you feel about all this? 

Bicknell:  Well, I thought it was pretty outrageous that Gelman was violating permits, and having illegal discharges without permits, and it was contaminating a pristine lake. At that time I didn’t understand that it had all these lagoons that were allowing dioxane to get into the groundwater. 

BL:  But he knew enough to be concerned.  When there was no action from the authorities, he convinced some of the neighbors to petition for well water testing. 

Bicknell:  When they came back with like 100,000 ppb in a drinking water well, and as you know theEPAadvisory is 3.5, you knew that there was severe damage.  And that’s when it cascaded and all the other homes around here were sampled and put on public water.

BL:  He said he had no clue of the magnitude of the problem.

Bicknell:  I didn’t realize it would grow to be four miles long and a mile wide, wiping out residential wells and going into the city, potentially harming people through vapor intrusion!

BL:  It took nearly two years before Gelman quit discharging dioxane to the environment.  By then, Bicknell had left Michigan for a job with the US EPA.  Now back in the area, he’s outraged the plume has been allowed to expand.   

(BL):  Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News.

(DF): In the next segment of 'The Green room,' we'll bring Dan Bicknell's latest call to action on remediation of the 1, 4 dioxane plume. It should be noted, Pall Corporationhas refused repeated requests for comment. I'm david Fair and this is 89.1 WEMU. 

Resources  (links already embedded)

Ann Arbor News articles written at the time of Bicknell’s discovery:

·         DNR Seeks Source Of Scio Township Lake's Contaminant (September 16, 1984)

·         State May Clear Gelman Sciences Of Pollution Charges (October 22, 1984)

·         Former Candidate Revives Water Issue (May 16, 1985)

·         DNR Files On Gelman Sciences Inc. Reveal Gaps, Inconsistencies (April 27, 1986)

·         Lack Of Proper Testing Keeps Gelman Disaster A Secret For 17 Months (October, 1987)

Dan Bicknell’s 1984 graduate school report

State of Michigan’s 1988 complaint against Gelman for illegal releases of toxic chemicals

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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