The Green Room: The Ann Arbor Area's 1,4 Dioxane Plume-Part 20

Sep 9, 2016

While the federal advisory level is 3.5 parts per billion, the amount of dioxane the State of Michigan allows in drinking water is 85 ppb, one of the highest standards in the country.  High levels mean less extensive remediation plans, a boon to industries responsible for the cleanups.  But, could the resulting water pollution negatively impact other businesses, and the local economy in general?  In this installment of  WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas looks at various perspectives on this question.

David Fair (DF):  This is 89-1 WEMU, and I’m David Fair.  Gelman Sciences was once a bustling company, employing hundreds at its Wagner Road Facility in Scio Township.  That’s where a spreading chemical plume began and continues to contaminate groundwater through a good portion of Ann Arbor.  The business has since been sold, twice, and is now closed save the few employees still charged with clean-up of the contamination. In WEMU’s 20th installment of our series on the Ann Arbor Area’s 1,4 dioxane plume, Barbara Lucas looks at the potential impacts of the situation on the future of our local economy, as we return to 'The Green Room.'

Barbara Lucas (BL): I’m looking at a 1994 letter Charles Gelman wrote to then-governor John Engler.  Some highlights:

“Governor Engler, our company has contributed to the well-being of this state.  We are increasing the number of jobs in the State of Michigan…  We’ve spent $15 million on this issue...  We were nearly driven out of business...  It is time that the Michigan Health Department reconsider the risk of 1,4 Dioxane.” 

Sure enough, the following year, Michigan’s dioxane standard was raised from 3 ppb to a whopping 77 ppb.  And five years later, it was raised even more, to 85 ppb, where it stands today.  The decision to allow such high levels of dioxane in drinking water doesn’t set well with Matt Greff.  Matt and his wife Rene own Arbor Brewing Company. 

Matt Greff:  It was a short-sighted way to look at helping businesses.

BL: The beer at their Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti breweries is made with City of Ann Arbor water. 

Greff:  Yeah, you’ve helped some businesses and now you could be jeopardizing a lot more businesses than the single businesses you were helping. 

BL:  When he’s on sales calls out of state…

Matt Greff: I cannot tell you how many times people make a comment like, “I hope you aren’t using that Flint water.” That’s where branding or marketing—Ann Arbor needs to be very careful that you don’t get marked as some place like that. …So I think it’s really important that we get a grip on this and get it taken care of before we have a pretty major real and perceived problem.

BL:  Stephen Lange Ranzini is President and CEO of University Bank, which he says…

Stephen Lange Ranzini: …has a tremendous investment—tens of millions of dollars—in homes and businesses in the exclusion zone. 

BL:  He’s speaking of the area above the contaminated plume, where contact with the groundwater is prohibited.  He says the University of Michigan is the economic engine of the area. 

Ranzini:  So anything that damages the University could have a major impact on the vitality of our community in the future.

BL:  What does the University think?  U of M professor Dr. Allen Burton studies risks to aquatic ecosystems. 

Allen Burton:  The University doesn’t have a position because it shouldn’t.  We’re an institution of higher learning, just trying to gather all of the facts, to get them out there, to make good decisions with.

BL: But his guess is the plume will not drive people away.  He says groundwater contamination is very common in urban environments.

Burton:  So I find it difficult to believe that a plume of one chemical that has not been found to be in the drinking water is going to deter people from coming to Ann Arbor or having their students here.

BL:  Dr. Burton says our region has sources of water pollution that he ranks much higher. 

Burton: So we have to tackle the things that are causing the biggest problems.  And it’s really simple stuff.  And it’s not dioxane.

BL:  He says the main culprit is runoff (laden with pesticides, fertilizers, metals and other pollutants) from urban areas and, even more so, from farms—which is politically challenging to change.

Burton:  It’s really sad.  I want clean water, more than anything.  That’s all I care about.  I want to be fishing in a trout stream, where things are good. 

BL:  How much of a threat the dioxane plume poses to Ann Arbor is uncertain.  But there’s consensus that as a state, we need to keep “Pure Michigan” water pure.

Resources:

·         Charles Gelman’s 1994 letter to Engler and the state’s response  

·         “Conserving Water:  The Fight to Protect Beer’s Main Ingredient”  All About Beer Magazine, November 24, 2013