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The Green Room: The Ann Arbor Area's 1, 4 Dioxane Plume-Part 12

On June 14th a resolution was passed by the Scio Township Board of Trusteesaimed at addressing the 1, 4 dioxane plumethat has spread from the old Gelman Sciencesfacility on Wagner Road. It seeks Superfund designationfrom the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and City of Ann Arborare considering similar resolutions.  A meeting is being arranged between all government entities involved, at the local, state and federal levels. Until that meeting takes place, there are many unknowns and much speculation.  In this week’s 'The Green Room' segment, we look at one perspective.

David Fair (DF):  This is 89.1 WEMU and I’m David Fair and we invite you in ‘The Green Room’ as our series on the Ann Arbor dioxane plume continues. Last week, in this environmental series, we spoke with Dan Bicknell. He discussed discovering the water contamination emanating from the Gelman Sciences facility on Wagner Road in Scio Township. That was 1984 when he was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Bicknell then left the area for a career dedicated to the environment. Now, he lives on the east side of the state, but as WEMU’s Barbara Lucas reports, he’s back to working for action and solutions in Ann Arbor.

Barbara Lucas (BL):  At first when Dan Bicknell discovered the dioxane contamination, his findings were doubted—he was, after all, only a college student.  Now, he’s had 32 years of work in the field.

Dan Bicknell:  I was the US EPA environmental risk assessor for Region 5 as well the General Motors environmental risk assessor for about 10 years.

BL:  Bicknell is not happy that the goal for the Ann Arbor plume is to contain it, rather than clean it up.  Here’s Bob Wagner of the DEQ at a Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting:

Bob Wagner:  Know that “cleanup” suggests to the public that it's going to get cleaned up. Spilled milk?  It gets wiped up, it’s cleaned up.

BL:  But Wagner says that since 1995, Michigan law allows a polluter to leave pollution in place, and not clean it up, so long people aren’t exposed to harmful levels.  

Wagner:  And that is what current law provides for.

BL:  And that’s what the court ruled in the Gelman case.  But the DEQ has proposed that the state lower the amount of dioxane that is legally-permissible for contact.  I ask Mitch Adelman of the DEQ if we’ll see major change once the more protective criteria is approved.

Mitch Adelman:  Well I guess that depends on your definition of change. 

BL:  He asks if more monitoring wells is what I have in mind. 

BL:  No, I’m talking about actually extracting the dioxane and getting rid of it, to a lower level.  Really aggressively trying to clean up the plume. 

Adelman: I guess I’m not going to speculate on what the time frame is for that outcome.  I don’t know if that is a realistic outcome, to tell you the truth.

BL:  Bicknell won’t accept a lesser outcome, and is sounding the call.  Last spring he alerted the Pate family off Wagner Road that their well’s double-digit dioxane levels might indeed be a health issue.  He’s concerned about multiple pathways of exposure—not just drinking and bathing.  

Bicknell:  Unfortunately with the Pate family, where they had to have a vaporizer and they used the vaporizer in the baby’s room because they were having trouble breathing.  Well, the dioxane vapors went into the air and that was another pathway to the child.

BL:  Vapor intrusion in basements is another exposure route he’s concerned about.

Bicknell:  It's very similar to radon.   You know how radon gets built up in basements because basements have cracks and stuff like that.  It’s the same sort of thing.  But in this case you’ve got the groundwater in near contact, or in contact, with the basement.  The fumes, the volatilization, go into the building and that’s a concern.  As you know, the State’s proposed rule is 29 ppb and it's highly likely that those levels will be exceeded as the dioxane plume moves through the city of Ann Arbor.

BL: Although doubts exist it’s warranted, Bicknell is certain Ann Arbor needs federal help.  He’s urging the city and county to apply to have the Gelman plume named to the EPA’s “National Priorities List” of hazardous waste sites.What would that entail?

Bicknell:  If we sign a petition and send it into US EPA, the process is that they look at the information that exists today, and create a ‘Hazardous Ranking Score.’

BL:  He feels sure it would rank high. 

Bicknell:  Then there's a 30-day public comment period where the public will say ‘yes we do or no we don’t want this to be a federal Superfund site.’

BL:  If it passes that test, after about three months….

Bicknell:  They will prepare an administrative order that would be sent over to Pall-Gelman that will say ‘you need to do these following things.’

BL:  If Gelman refuses to follow the order, Bicknell is confident the US EPA will do the work for them, and sue for compensation.  He acknowledges “going Superfund” won’t achieve miracles, but feels something has got to change. 

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

(DF): 'The Green Room' is a presentation of the WEMU News Department. To hear the first 11-installments of our ongoing series on Ann Arbor's 1,4 dioxane plume, go to wemu-dot-org. I'm David Fair and this is 89.1 WEMU. 


EPA Superfund Site Assessment Process

“Report claims dioxane poses imminent public health risk in Ann Arbor,” MLive. Ryan Stanton, May 20, 2016

“Family with 3 children living in house with dioxane-poisoned water,” MLive. Ryan Stanton, March 3, 2016.

“Bearing Witness: Decades of Dioxane,” The Ann. Anna Prushinskaya, March 1, 2016.

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.