How did an area that prides itself on being environmentally-progressive find itself sitting on top of one of the most extensive dioxane contaminations in the world? That’s one of the many questions explored in WEMU’s "Green Room" series on the topic, and this website is a tool to complement the series. It provides an outline for quick overview, and transcripts in sequence for the full story. Click on segments of interest to be taken to the archived audio at WEMU.org.
David Fair: On March 14th the Michigan Department of
Environmental Quality delivered news long-awaited in Ann Arbor, where the
solvent 1,4-dioxane has contaminated it’s groundwater: The DEQ will soon
lower the level of dioxane that is legally permissible in the state’s drinking
water from 85 to 7.2 parts per billion. It’s good news, but actually
restoring Ann Arbor’s aquifer to safe levels is still not part of the state’s
plan. Meanwhile, the technology and resources to clean it up do
exist. In this installment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas
explores the question: Will the legally responsible party get rid
of the pollution, or let the plume spread?
Geese calling at Dolph
Barbara Lucas (BL): Gelman Life Sciences on Wagner Road stopped using dioxane 30 years
ago.But despite efforts to contain it,
the 850,000 pounds they dumped have been spreading throughout the
groundwater.Now the plume covers about
three square miles, on Ann Arbor’s west side.It’s in some lakes and streams around here too.
Pratt: The Sister Lakes are just off to the northeast of us over
there.We can see one of them.
BL: That’sEvan Pratt,
Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner.
Pratt:And it sure is a nice quiet
serene setting but maybe that's appropriate for a colorless, odorless
contaminant that you really can’t tell is there.No one would know this is kind of ground
BL: He tells me Ann Arbor city water is safe, since it comes from
Barton Pond.But because dioxane can’t
be removed by boiling, or filtering at the tap, well water is at risk.And fears are it could reach Barton Pond some
Pratt:We could maybe go to the
Pall Corporation and take a look at all the fancy gizmos they have that suck
the water out of the ground and treat it.
BL:He says Pall is the company
that bought out Gelman.And last year, a
Canadian company called Danaher bought out Pall.Pratt is frustrated.He says ten years ago, when Pall found it
challenging to remove the dioxane to safe levels, the county circuit court
judge let Pall drop the cleanup goal.They created a prohibition zone instead:an area where wells are prohibited, and homes must be hooked up to city
Pratt:The prohibition zone limit
is violated, “Well, let's just expand the prohibition zone!”Water gets into, highly toxic water gets into
a lot of wells, three or four hundred wells, “Well, let's just put them on City
water!” I don't understand what does that means for us long term.
BL:Bob Wagner of the Michigan
Department of Environmental Quality says creating prohibition zones instead of
cleaning up groundwater is not unusual in Michigan.
Wagner:And since 1995, with thousands and thousands
of cleanups that we work on, there have been 4,000 such prohibition zones—restriction
zones—put in place to manage contamination, to assure the public and the
environment is protected from the risk.And that is what current law provides for.
BL:Here’s Washtenaw County
Board of Commissioners vice-chair Yousef Rabhi.
Rabhi: I'm trying to imagine somebody dumps a bunch of oil into the river.
Is the plan to just leave the oil in there and to contain it? Or do you
actually want to get the oil out? And why is this any different?
BL: Wagner responds.
Wagner:It isn't a plan, it is an outcome, as a result of litigation.
Rabhi:To me, this is the same
situation.We have pollutants underneath
our feet moving towards water sources? I mean, it is inconceivable to me that
we would allow a court ruling like that to just stop us in our tracks.
BL:1,4-Dioxane is being found
in groundwater at dozens of sites across the country.The Environmental Protection Agency calls it
a contaminant of “emerging concern.”They’ve not yet issued an MCL, or Maximum Contaminant Level.But in response to new science, in 2010 the EPA issued a health
advisory, calling 1,4-dioxane a probable carcinogen.At that time, the EPA set the risk of
one cancer death in a million at .35 ppb.
City of Tucson video: “…to supply a
safe, reliable source of water, to Tucson customers…”
BL:How have other communities
responded to the news that dioxane is more dangerous that once thought?In 2001, Tucson Arizona found dioxane in
their drinking water, but in concentrations less than 5 ppb, averaging just
3.33.By simply blending with clean
water, they could’ve diluted it to even lower levels.But they wanted to get below the EPA’s
advisory of .35 ppb.Far below
Michigan’s newly announced criteria of 7.2 ppb.
City of Tucson video:“…came together, to dedicate the new
BL: I call Chad Lapora, Tucson Water Programs Superintendent.He tells me the State of Arizona
doesn’t even have a dioxane criteria law.
do you go to that level, when you don’t need to, legally?
Lapora:Because of the history, this utility and this city said we’ll never put
ourselves in the position that we were in before.
referring to their prior groundwater contamination, by the carcinogen TCE, that
resulted in a federal Superfund cleanup. Apparently, the experience made an
impression.In less than three years after the EPA’s
dioxane warning, Tucson had built a plant that removes dioxane to less than .1
Lapora:When blending was no longer an option, the senior leadership at Tucson
Water went to the mayor and council and said, ‘We need to build this plant’ and
they signed off on it and we built the plant!
BL: Although the parties that created the pollution in Tucson are
legally responsible, Tucson
chose to use city money up front to get the plant built.
Lapora:We are in the process of getting reimbursed for that $16 to $20 million.
And in the future, it will be set up where we get reimbursed for operations and
maintenance as well, for that plant.
BL:He says they made a decision
to stay under the EPA’s .35, one in a million risk of cancer deaths, even
though it’s not a law.
of how you deliver water to customers, you know, we still have to meet water
quality standards.And for us, we
treat—and that’s the biggest thing that I can tell you—we treat that health
advisory for 1,4-dioxane as if it were an MCL. And that’s what we’ve done.We take it very seriously.
in Michigan, the response to the EPA’s 2010 health advisory has been
different.Instead of cleaning up to a
higher standard, Ann Arbor’s prohibition zone—where wells are prohibited—was
expanded.And the rate of cleanup was
slowed in both 2011 and 2012.Here’s
Sumi Kalisapathy at the
February 29th City Council Work Session.
I have heard from MDEQ, I just feel hopeless. So I’m just looking for a
solution outside MDEQ or the state.Is
there any example you can think of, especially with dioxane, anywhere in the
U.S., that has been better handled?
BL:City Environment Coordinator Matt Naud
Naud:You know, I think there are examples of
really successful cleanups, and there are ways, if you have enough zeros at the
end of the number, to...You know, Pall
is in the filtration business.It’s
their job to make water cleaner.They
could pump it, and go back to using UV, and treat it to a lower standard.You could even ideally treat it to
non-detect, and you could use it as residential drinking water.That’s not required under state law, it’s
very expensive, and so it’s unlikely we’re going to see that as a
BL:Neither state nor
federal law is making Tucson remove their dioxane.They are proud of their plant.Last
year it won Grand Prize in a
national contest.Its award-winning
technology is supplied by a company called TrojanUV.Searching the Trojanuv.com website, I open a
slide show touting the treatment process used in Tucson.
Music from Trojan UV
where have I seen the name Trojan UV? Oh yeah, it was on the environmental page
of Danaher.com.Turns out Danaher has
owned Trojan UV since 2004.Danaher.The same 60-billion dollar Canadian company that last year
bought Pall Corporation.So while
Danaher’s subsidiary in Ann Arbor is letting its plume spread, its company in
Tucson has proven it can remove dioxane to nearly non-detectable levels. Should
Danaher be held to a greater level of accountability? Danaher has not responded to requests
Fair: Last week, in the first of what will be an ongoing series on Ann
Arbor’s dioxane contamination, WEMU looked at another city—Tucson,
Arizona—which is removing dioxane in its drinking water to levels far below
Michigan’s new standard of 7.2 parts per billion. In this installment of
“The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas explores the question: Could a similar
treatment be used to clean up the groundwater here? Before it gets to our
Sounds of coffee shop.
Barbara Lucas (BL):
Matt Naud’s the Environmental Coordinator for the City of Ann Arbor.Over coffee, we discuss the ultra violet
light process used to treat drinking water in Tucson, to below .1 part per
billion, without creating the cancer-causing by-product bromate.Naud says, prior to 2005, Pall was using UV
as well.Pall’s the company responsible
for cleaning up Ann Arbor’s plume.But
they found it expensive.So they
successfully petitioned the court to allow a less effective method.
Matt Naud:Under state law Pall was able to change from using a treatment
technology that was to one or two parts per billion (ppb) to one that is now
six or eight ppb, AND adds bromate.
BL: Naud’s not happy with the switch.He’s doesn’t like these high levels being discharged into Honey Creek.
The creek drains to Barton Pond, the city’s drinking water supply.
Naud:I think we ought to be
pushing for best available technology. You know, minimizing… especially any of
these discharges that are going upstream of a drinking water source.
confident the city’s water supply is safe.He says the dioxane in Honey Creek is greatly diluted by the enormous
Barton Pond.And he doesn’t believe the
plume will ever reach the Pond.
test to 70 parts per trillion and aren't finding it in Barton.
BL: He says in the highly unlikely event dioxane
were to be found there, a plant would be built to treat it before it’s served
to customers, like in Tucson.
Naud:Let me be clear, if the city
thought it were an emergency situation where we needed to do something, we
would do it.
BL: Could we go
back to a stronger treatment process? Put to rest concerns about the city’s water
supply, not to mention the hundreds of homes and businesses on well water, outside the city?I call Terry Keep, environmental contaminant treatment and sales manager at Trojan
Technologies, which is treating the drinking water in Tucson.I ask if the same level of cleanup could work
here, considering the extent of our plume.
BL:Our concentrations are a lot
higher than in Tucson, to get it down to Tucson’s levels which is below .1—do
you feel your process could do that?
Terry Keep:Yes.The concentration of the VOC is not what
dictates whether we can do it or not because we can.What’s going to drive treatment is how much
UV power to put in the water and how much oxidant, meaning hydrogen peroxide,
do I need add to get to the amount of removal you need.
BL:And what that comes down to
is the money, right?
Keep:Absolutely. Dollars and
cents, that's not just for the capital cost but for the ongoing costs.
BL: I ask what our project might cost compared to Tucson’s, which was
between $16 and $20 million.
Keep:Each project is unique and
the uniqueness is driven by how much flow and concentration and water quality.
So while you saw Tucson’s plant, they are treating it and drinking it directly,
yours is more of a pump and treat and release—treating it to get rid of it, and
putting it back in the ground.
BL: He says treating at the plume is simpler than treating drinking
BL:So our situation could
potentially be cheaper than theirs?
BL: He says although it might seem logical for liable polluters to go
all out and nip it in the bud, at the cheaper plume stage, that rarely
Fair: 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 dioxane
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
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
created a situation where certain areas could be declared forever
contaminated, couldn’t have certain functions on them—a schoolyard, a park,
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
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.
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
Coffee shop sounds.
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
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
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.
Fair: How much of the chemical 1,4 dioxane would you be willing to
drink? When Michigan’s new, stricter level is instituted, folks on well
water here could still be drinking over 20 times more dioxane than in places
like Tucson, Arizona. WEMU’s “The Green Room” continues its series on Ann
Arbor’s contaminated groundwater with an exploration of the elusive question:
“What is a safe level of 1,4 dioxane?”
Sounds of Honey Creek.
Barbara Lucas (BL):Have you had it tested for
Roger Rayle:Yes, long time ago.
BL:What was it?
BL:I’m with Roger Rayle:
Tireless watchdog of Ann Arbor’s dioxane contamination, and leader of “Scio
Citizens for Safe Water.”We’re next to
the wellhead on his property, adjacent to Honey Creek.I ask him what level he considers safe for
Rayle:There is no really safe
level for this compound. You just have to pick what you think is an acceptable
BL:When it comes to dioxane
levels, it’s the wild west out there. The EPA doesn’t regulate it, and most
states haven’t set allowable levels.Rayle says Michigan’s level used to be low: 3 parts per billion.
Rayle:Then in ’94-‘95, the powers
that be in Lansing under the Engler administration and the GOP legislature
gutted the polluter pay law.
BL:He says they changed the
odds acceptable for dying of cancer from one in a million, to one in a hundred
thousand.So Michigan’s allowable
dioxane level shot up—from 3 to 77 to 85 ppb.Then, new research came to light.
Rayle:Since 2010 the EPA has
determined that dioxane is more dangerous than once thought, so the one in a
hundred thousand over a 70-year lifetime should be 3.5 ppb.
BL:If the EPA recommends 3.5
for that span and those odds, why then is the Michigan DEQ proposing 7.2, over
twice as high?Rayle says it’s due to
the difference in span—the number of years used as the period of exposure.Instead of the EPA’s 70 years, in Michigan,
it’s a 32-year span.So how did the
Michigan legislature arrive at 32?
Rayle:It's a mystery. A made up
number. Besides what contamination could possibly last longer than 32 years?
Well, here's one!
Honey Creek sounds fade.
BL:I catch up with Mitch Adelman of the
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.We discuss the grey areas involved in arriving at acceptable risk.
Adelman:Then you get into the question of ‘how clean
is clean’?Or, ‘how dirty is clean,’ for
those who don’t like the 7.2?
BL:We discuss how we routinely accept other, much greater
risks in our lives.For instance, odds
of dying in a motor vehicle incident are more like one in a hundred.
Adelman:I choose to ride a bike and take that
risk.I choose to canoe and that could
be a risky thing too.It is a lot worse
than a one in a million risk.Whereas
someone in Flint didn’t choose to drink lead-contaminated water.Or somebody in Ann Arbor, even if they are
drinking one part per billion, and we say that is that’s an acceptable risk
from a legal standpoint, that might be something that is unacceptable to their
individual risk tolerance and they didn’t sign up for it!
there’s the unknown impact to future generations.Here’s toxicologist Dr. Rita Loch-Caruso, at
the March 8th meeting of the Coalition
for Action on Remediation of Dioxane.
Dr. Rita Caruso: I tried to find something and I couldn’t
find a single reference on whether dioxane is in breast milk or not.There are no human studies on reproductive or
developmental toxicity, there's nothing on pregnancy. There is one rat study on
BL:Some would point out dioxane hasn’t been
studied much because its toxicity is relatively low.For others, like Roger Rayle, that’s not
Sound of Honey Creek.
Rayle: It's not in nature, it shouldn't be there. So zero is the safe
David Fair: With water quality and public health on all of our minds, the conversation continues on how best to deal with a slowly spreading plume of 1, 4 dioxane in Ann Arbor-area groundwater. This week, Ann Arbor State Representative Jeff Irwin hosted a town hall meeting on the issue. Members of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality attended to answer question about recently proposed, and more stringent, standards for dioxane. In this week’s edition of WEMU’s “The Green Room” we continue our series on the contamination plume, as Barbara Lucas tries to answer the question: “Will the new proposed dioxane standard make a difference?”
Jeff Irwin: Thank-you for coming.
Barbara Lucas (BL): Here’s Representative Jeff Irwin.
Irwin:…state DEQ director Keith Creagh to come tonight to talk to the community tonight about what this better cleanup standard means for hopefully a better cleanup here in Ann Arbor.
BL: After the presentations, a long line voiced questions.
Attendee 1: Does the change down to 7.2 mean any substantive change?
Attendee 2: What can we actually do to clean it rather than watch it go by?
Attendee 3:I have a tub of water in my basement, it’s not flooded, it’s just there.Is that dangerous?
BL: Here’s Bob Wagner of the DEQ.
Robert Wagner:So that’s a great question.If you have sump pump and water in your basement and it has 1,4-Dioxane, 1,4-Dioxane has some ability to become a vapor. And when we talked about vapor intrusion, that could be a potential risk.So it’s really based upon what concentration that’s in your water that’s in your basement, either because of a sump pump or seeps or even flooding.So we’ll take a look at it.
BL: Dr. Larry Lemke is a geology professor at Wayne State University.
Larry Lemke: I get it that 85 is going to 7.2 because we’ve had an increase in the recognized toxicity of dioxane. Why then isn’t the groundwater-surface water interface also going down?That’s the one that’s really going to count here because everything that’s going on inside the Prohibition Zone is governed by that criterion.
Outdoor sounds, birds.
BL: I’m trying to get a grip on where the potential impacts will be.I’m in Dolph Park on Wagner Road.It’s in the Prohibition Zone which stretches east all the way to University Hospital, and contains Dioxane levels over 2,400 ppb.Because cleanup is not a goal in the Prohibition Zone, the DEQ’s proposed stricter cleanup standard won’t have an impact here.
Sounds of traffic.
BL: OK, now I’ve crossed to the west side of Wagner Road—out of the Prohibition Zone.This is the side of the plume where Gelman, Inc. is removing dioxane, by court order.Looking at plume maps, I still see sky high concentrations, over 3,000 ppb. How will a stricter standard affect things here? I call Dan Hamel of the DEQ.
BL: It’s really hard for meto grasp what the difference is going to be with 7.2.So you’ve got these places where it’s already above 85 ppb west of the prohibition zone, which it’s not supposed to be…
BL:…but the court said ‘leave it there so long as it doesn’t migrate’
Hamel: ‘Expand’, right.
BL:So you potentially could expand the areas that are OK, until you reach 7.2?
Hamel:That wouldn’t be our intent.No, we don’t want to expand the area that is OK.We have no intention of saying ‘We are going to move it out.’If anything, we are going to move it back.
BL: So levels above the safe standard, whether it’s 85 or 7.2 parts per billion, are allowed by the court order both inside and out of the Prohibition Zone.But at least a lower standard should help the DEQ in court.And there is one place near here where a level of 7.2 definitely would have made a difference.
Traffic sounds.Workers talking.
BL: In early March, workers installed city water to a household off Jackson Road, where for years a family with young children had been drinking well water with dioxane levels as high as 17 ppb. It was legal, because it was below Michigan’s 85 ppb limit.So a lower level is definitely a welcomed step in the right direction.How much of an impact it will make, and how soon, remains to be seen.