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The Green Room: The Ann Arbor Area's 1,4 Dioxane Plume-Part 25

Barbara Lucas
89.1 WEMU

For two decades the State of Michigan’s “containment” policy has allowed polluters to leave contamination in place rather than clean it up.  4,000 such “prohibition zones” exist in the state.  In our ongoing look in the Ann Arbor area's 1,4 dioxane plume, we look at the ramifications of that kind of policy.  

David Fair (DF):  This is 89.1 WEMU and I’m David Fair. Dioxane continues to show up in new places around Ann Arbor. On October 17th, a report was released showing not only dioxane, but other contaminants in shallow groundwater on the west side of Ann Arbor.  In fact, chloroform was discovered at concentrations well above Michigan’s advisory level.  This is the 25th installment of WEMU’s series on the 1,4 dioxane plume in the Ann Arbor area.  As Barbara Lucas reports, the more contamination issues arise, the more questions there are to answer. The search for solutions continues as we return you to “The Green Room.”

Mayor Christopher Taylor: The pollution was decades in the making, and it is regrettably, decades in the solving. 

Barbara Lucas (BL):  That’s Ann Arbor Mayor Christopher Taylor.

Taylor: That is a problem due to the legal structure of cleanup in Michigan, and those are the constraints under which we operate. 

BL:  The legal structure of cleanup in Michigan allows for “containment”: pollution can stay in place rather than be cleaned up.  There have been 4,000 of these prohibition zones created since 1995.  But Ann Arbor’s plume didn’t “get the memo”—it is not staying in place. 

BL:  We’re at an Ann Arbor City Council special session.  It was called due to the latest discovery of dioxane and other contaminants in shallow groundwater.

Chip Smith:  We can no longer sit by as passive actors in this drama.  We’ve been sitting by, excluded from the table by a judge’s decision ten years ago, and nothing positive has happened. 

BL:  That’s Council Member Chip Smith. The council is voting on a resolution to reaffirm the city’s commitment to actively tackle the dioxane problem.  

Taylor:  All in favor? Opposed?  It is approved, and please let the record show it is unanimous.

BL:  While concern is unanimous, what exactly to do is another matter.

Dr. Larry Lemke:  This is a huge, massive plume.  It’s been developing for thirty, forty, fifty years. 

BL:  Dr. Larry Lemke is chair of Hydrogeology at Central Michigan University.

Lemke:  So I would caution that we need to be very careful about the simple solution, which is ‘pump more treat more.’ 

BL:  Dr. Lemke studied Ann Arbor’s plume for 19 years while a professor at Wayne State University.

Lemke: The genie is out of the bottle. There's no way to get the genie back in again. We can pump huge amounts of water and treat them but we're never going to get it all. That’s not to say we should not do what we can to get the most of it out, because that will mitigate the impact on future generations, but complete cleanup is not a realistic goal.

BL: Here’s University of Michigan eco-toxicologist Dr. Allen Burton.

Dr. Allen Burton: The reality is these groundwater contamination problems that exist all over the country are ‘pump and treat’ kinds of scenarios, where they pump out groundwater and treat it.  They are not typically successful.  The groundwater doesn’t get completely clean, because it’s such a complicated problem.  And, yes, the companies have been punished, they are trying to make it better, but at the end of the day they don’t always make it better.

BL:  Dr. Burton says we may be forced to narrow our goal from restoring whole aquifers to targeting just the water on the way to the tap.

Burton: To clean up groundwater, just to clean up groundwater, is not a very efficient process.  We should be cleaning up the water that’s going to be used as drinking water.

BL:  Dr. Burton says the technology does exist and is expanding in use.

Burton: These unique kind of treatment systems are going to become more common particularly as drought and water shortages become more common.  And they are hugely expensive.  But they do clean up the water, and we can drink it without a problem.

BL: Tucson, Arizona has such a plant.  It removes the dioxane between the aquifer and the tap. Water Treatment Administrator Jeff Biggs says they’re fielding calls and giving tours to people from around the country.

Jeff Biggs:  People are very interested because it is innovative and we are out in front of it.  They know there are going to be issues with it and they want to come out and see how this works. 

BL: Biggs says the technology is used in Europe, and not just for dioxane removal.    

Biggs: It is also used for reuse water, where they take treated waste water effluent and treat it to drinking water standards for reuse—potable reuse. 

BL: Michigan’s government allows aquifers to stay polluted via the “containment” policy.  And perhaps that’s a viable approach, now that the technology exists to remove toxins on the way to the tap, if and when we really need that polluted water.  But remember, in addition to enormous expense, these “aquifer-to-tap” treatment plants require enormous energy.  And do we really want a world where our water is potentially poisoned, and we’re only sure about the water we drink?  Consider aquatic ecosystems, swimming, fishing.  And now, the newly emerging possibility of vapor intrusion of toxins into basements. Council Member Chip Smith.

Chip Smith:  Council Member Warpehoski and I have gotten a number of phone calls, emails and texts from property owners who live by or recreate near some of these places where this contamination was found.

BL: Although the shallow groundwater tests found dioxane in only very low levels, fears are higher concentrations could migrate in.  And vapor intrusion is an exposure route an aquifer-to-tap treatment plant would not touch.  Some say the containment approach is a copout; that we can’t afford to simply tolerate pollution.

Matt Greff:  Can I get you anything?  Coffee, water, a beer?

BL: Matt Greff is co-owner of Arbor Brewing Company.   We’re standing amidst giant tanks of beer in his Ypsilanti brewery, discussing Ann Arbor’s dioxane plume.

Greff:  This is just another individual issue in a much broader pool of issues that we are dealing with in in Michigan, like keeping our water clean across the board.  And keeping our water safe.  Not selling off our fresh water.  I feel like as Michiganders we take fresh water for granted.  I think we really need to stand up and protect our water sources. 

BL:  When Michigan’s legislature gutted environmental laws and funding to protect the economy, citizens were left with the containment approach.  But Greff sees clean water as crucial to the economy.

Greff:  Bell’s, Dark Horse, ourselves, Arcadia, Founder’s—we all realize what we have at stake in this.  Not just our businesses, but our state.

BL:  He says Michigan brewery owners cover the spectrum, politically. 

Greff:  And it’s been really amazing to see such a diverse group of people rally around this issue—the water issue.  Because I think it just proves this is not a partisan issue.  This is an issue that as citizens, as business owners, we can all rally around and say ‘this is something we need to protect.’

BL:  The community is losing patience.  Just this past week:  A City Council special session and resolution, a Town Hall meeting, and a letter from U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell to the EPA with a firm request for answers.  As frustrations rise locally, it may be worth a step back:  The scientists we’ve spoken to say, in essence, we’ve fouled our nest.  And we aren’t alone.  As clean water supplies diminish globally, the goal of restoring large bodies of water to pristine states is being replaced, by a focus on simply ensuring enough clean water to drink.  

Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News


"The Green Room" series on The Ann Arbor Area's 1,4 Dioxane Plume-Parts 1-24

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.