Concerns Raised over Dioxane Cleanup

Pall Life Sciences' proposal increases levels in groundwater
A section from a map showing the Pall Life Sciences 1,4 dioxane plume. The red dots indicate monitoring wells.

A section from a map showing the Pall Life Sciences 1,4 dioxane plume. The red dots indicate monitoring wells. (Image links to a .PDF file of the full map.)

An effort to change the cleanup of contaminated groundwater has come under fire by local residents and government officials who’ve been keeping an eye on the issue for more than 20 years.

At Wednesday’s annual meeting of the Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane, residents said that requested changes filed by Pall Life Sciences earlier this month with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality would allow higher amounts of the contaminant, 1,4-dioxane, in the groundwater. As a result, they said, the 1,4-dioxane, a presumed carcinogen, could flow northward and reach Ann Arbor’s primary drinking water supply at Barton Pond.

“The more you let (the contamination) go north, the more you risk letting it get to Barton Pond,” said Matt Naud, environmental coordinator for the city of Ann Arbor, which is part of CARD member.

CARD is a group of citizen and governmental groups concerned about cleanup of the contamination, a process that began in the mid-1980s. At Wednesday’s annual meeting, held at the Washtenaw Intermediate School District on South Wagner Road, CARD members criticized the proposal, saying information, such as the amount of water pumped out of the aquifer, was missing. “A lot of geology and hydrogeology has not been evaluated yet,” said Vince Caruso, head of the Allen’s Creek Watershed Group. “More study needs to be done.”

The main concern for CARD was whether the contamination’s spread to the north would reach the Huron River, polluting Barton Pond, where the city pumps more than 80 percent of its residents’ drinking water.

The company’s new proposal would expand the area where wells are prohibited because of the contamination. Residents in that area would have to hook up to water piped in by the city of Ann Arbor.

If no wells were in use, regulations on allowed levels of contamination could be eased, and CARD members said they feared cleanup of the contamination would be cut back.

The proposed changes also do not include a contingency plan to treat any 1,4-dioxane in case the contamination reaches Barton Pond, said Naud. “Without a contingency plan, this plan – I would say – is non-reviewable,” he said.

The DEQ is in the process of evaluating Pall’s proposal, said Mitch Adelman, district supervisor for the agency’s remediation and redevelopment division, who was at the CARD meeting along with about 20 other people.

He was not surprised to see that company officials wanted to expand the area where wells would be prohibited, Adelman said, but “I expected to see a contingency plan in their proposal.” If the well-exclusion area is expanded, he said, there needs to be “robust monitoring,” in addition to a contingency plan.

DEQ officials have set up a public comment period – until June 8 – and a public meeting on May 27 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Haisley Elementary School, 825 Duncan St., in Ann Arbor.

DEQ must respond to the proposal by June 15. For the changes to be finalized, they must go through Washtenaw County Circuit Court, which oversees the cleanup.

The contamination began in the 1960s, when Gelman Sciences, which manufactured medical filters, pumped industrial wastewater into holding lagoons behind its factory at 600 Wagner Road in Scio Township. By 1985, tests showed some local residential wells were contaminated with 1,4-dioxane.

In 1997, Gelman Sciences was sold to Pall Corp. Ten years later, Pall, which is headquartered in East Hills, N.Y., closed the plant on Wagner Road where the contamination originated. However, the groundwater treatment facility continues to operate there, said Sybil Kolon, environmental quality analyst for DEQ.

Though efforts to measure and treat the contamination have gone on for years, groundwater contamination continues to turn up in testing – though rates have fallen overall – even while the pollution has spread.

Currently, Pall pumps out the groundwater for treatment and either dumps it into Honey Creek or re-injects it into the ground.


  1. By rodii
    May 21, 2009 at 9:39 pm | permalink

    I live in Scio on top of the western tongue of the plume (I have a monitoring well 45 feet from my house; we’ve been told the plume is 100 feet down) and would like to know more about the actual levels and their impact on drinking water. Does anyone know who has that information?

  2. May 21, 2009 at 10:34 pm | permalink

    MDEQ maintains a website on this contamination site with many good references. Another good source is the Washtenaw County website.

  3. May 21, 2009 at 10:51 pm | permalink

    The answer to Rodii’s question is not simple. Start with the CARD link that was given in the story. There are other links from there. In your place, I’d try to reach someone from the county Environmental Health department. (See the CARD link.)

  4. May 21, 2009 at 11:17 pm | permalink

    Rod, the best single source for raw data on the plume is Roger Rayle, who has been diligently scooping up as much detailed well monitoring data as he can and visualizing it in Google Earth.

    There’s a map with 2008 data here which is more compelling (and more alarming) than the placid, docile, flat, pastel map depicted above.

  5. May 21, 2009 at 11:25 pm | permalink

    Thanks for the article. A few additional important points made at the meeting.

    CARD has been strongly requesting that Judge Sheldon hire a Special Master and form a task force to help with this very technically challenging situation that he nor any single person can understand. So far he has refused to do so yet he alone will decide our fate.

    The state environmental standards were severely reduced under Governor Engler(R) and have not been repaired to the detriment of the state. This makes the MDEQs job much harder (not to mention gutting the agency to add insult to injury).

    The old cleanup level before Engler was 3ppb (same as EPA’s suggested level and most states level) and now the city is moving to 2,800ppb.

    This is the ‘Mother of all 1,4-dioxane ground water contamination’ in the US and it has recently been place in the EPS’s top 5 environmental chemical contaminants of concern.

    This is a great invaluable resource we have lost and for who’s gain? Those at the very top at Gelman and Pall? Privatize the profits socialize the cost.

    Someone should tell Gov. Granholm and the State government it’s going to be awfully hard to be a ‘Cool City’ without any drinking water.

  6. By rodii
    May 22, 2009 at 11:45 am | permalink

    Thanks, Ed, Vivienne.

  7. By rodii
    May 22, 2009 at 11:47 am | permalink

    Or rather, on actually following Ed’s link, holy shit!

  8. May 22, 2009 at 12:40 pm | permalink

    Roger Rayle has been an invaluable community resource on the dioxane issue for many years. I remember when he first came to speak to the Washtenaw BOC (about 1997) with a cardboard model of the plume showing relative concentrations – the top one was well above his head. I’ve sat through so many presentations by Roger where he meticulously tracked concentration changes for each testing well site over time and graphically showed the movement of the compound. He is a private citizen. I’m glad to see that his work is continuing, discouraging as it is.

  9. May 22, 2009 at 1:47 pm | permalink

    Thank you for this coverage. It is so important to keep awareness for the plume and efforts and lack of efforts to deal with the issue.

  10. May 22, 2009 at 2:21 pm | permalink

    “and now the city is moving to 2,800ppb.”

    Actually, if I understand correctly, that would be the allowable limit if Pall’s proposal is accepted. The city isn’t initiating any such increase.

  11. May 22, 2009 at 2:31 pm | permalink

    A couple of points about the proposal to extend the prohibition zone: this puts the onus on the county environmental health department to enforce its well regulation so that people would be required to shut down residential wells in the townships as dioxane levels grew above the permitted level. Rather than the company being responsible for cleaning up the contamination, it is a “blame the victim” approach.

    For those of us in the city of Ann Arbor, our municipal sources of water are threatened (and one well has already been shut down), but we are already not allowed to have individual wells,even for the purposes of irrigation. It has occurred to me that as water fees go up, it is not very cost-effective to use highly treated drinking water for irrigation, especially of non-food crops like lawns and flowers. In future we might want to explore the possibility of irrigation wells. This might affect that option also.

  12. By Julie
    May 22, 2009 at 2:57 pm | permalink

    Regarding irrigations wells… I think that gets tricky, given how many people I know eat right out of their yards.

  13. May 22, 2009 at 4:28 pm | permalink

    Ed–Thanks for the link to Roger’s 3D map. It really gets the idea across fast and accurately.

  14. May 22, 2009 at 4:47 pm | permalink

    Julie, yes, you are right, we probably shouldn’t use that water for food crops. It might be difficult to allow irrigation for lawns and landscapes and still protect the public health. Still, too bad to lose that potential option. It’s not legal now.

  15. By Jeff Irwin
    May 22, 2009 at 5:14 pm | permalink

    This is such an infuriating move by Pall. Should I say that I am “A-Pall-ed” or should I just say SNAFU.

    “Well-exclusion” area!? That’s a nice way for the State of Michigan to tell us that they agree with the polluters and that cleaning up Pall/Gelman’s mess is too much of a burden on those responsible for the problem. It’s a euphemistic way for Governor Granholm to tell us that we can’t use our water resources because the state is unwilling to demand performance on this cleanup.

    For 20+ years, this company has been performing a lackluster cleanup – knowing all the while that if they lingered long enough – the plume would be so out of control that they would be let off the hook. Unfortunately, they were right and we already have prohibition zones (well-exclusion areas) where citizens can no longer enjoy the full value of their property. We cannot afford to expand this absurd, non-solution to this problem.

    I hope that the state rejects their plan and listens to the many voices throughout Washtenaw County and Michigan that want our clean water laws enforced with the utmost seriousness. Michigan needs to assure everybody that the Great Lakes State is firmly committed to protecting the world’s most impressive assemblage of fresh water.

    Thankfully, our very able Washtenaw County Environmental Health staff is working to communicate the county’s position to the MDEQ. I hope we can make a difference and alter the state’s trajectory on clean water issues.

  16. By Ralph Katz
    May 22, 2009 at 5:24 pm | permalink

    25 years ago or so, Gelman Sciences was storing paperwork in an old industrial building on the south side of Jackson Rd, just west of Jackson Plaza. The building caught fire and burned down, apparently due to a furnace malfunction. Might that building have stored records of what was pumped down their deep well?

  17. May 22, 2009 at 5:40 pm | permalink

    Steve, a very large chunk (~1/3) of the west side of the city is already allowed to reach 2,800ppb (Prohibition Zone), Pall proposal is to add a lot more to this area. It would increase about 1/4.

    A large business was using ground water in the Prohibition Zone to inexpensively cool an AC unit. The outflow was into a Sisters Lake, which started to show unexpected rising levels of dioxane, and they were asked to stop.

    Geothermal heating/cooling wells that don’t remove water are generally still allowed.

    And I think Roger Rayle should be up for a MacArthur Award for all his volunteer efforts and study on this environmental disaster.

  18. May 22, 2009 at 9:33 pm | permalink

    To give some idea of the relative magnitude of the problem, there is a dioxane issue in Tucson, AZ where they are concerned about the worst wells at 57 ppb and a health-based advisory level at 3 ppb.

  19. May 23, 2009 at 12:50 pm | permalink

    Vivienne, think rainwater–rain barrels, cisterns, green roofs–as well as native plants and perennial food plants (here, think permaculture) that don’t require extra watering beyond rainfall. Mining groundwater is unnecessary.

    Vince, thanks for the additional info. From that and other comments, though, it seems that the state, not the city, is the entity moving toward allowing higher levels.

  20. May 23, 2009 at 4:27 pm | permalink

    Steve, I was looking at a very long view of the resources available to us who live in this area in the future. Your reflexively offered list of acceptable options makes a lot of assumptions about future rainfall (will it be adequate to fill rainwater barrels and cisterns enough to meet needs?) and doesn’t take into account different needs and desires. Why would a green roof satisfy a gardener who likes herbaceous borders, or any gardener? Why do you suppose that perennial food plants (which would be mostly fruit trees, rhubarb, asparagus and horseradish) don’t need additional watering if rainfall is infrequent? Are you suggesting that we must all restrict our choices entirely to native plants (many of which will also encounter water stress if rainfall is inadequate – many Michigan plants are moisture-loving)?

    “Mining groundwater” is how most people in Michigan get their water. It is a resource that needs to be managed responsibly, but we shouldn’t begin by allowing it to become polluted. The Pall proposal is to let the resource be polluted, then to prevent us from using it. Do you favor that?

    One of the confusing things about this issue is that there is no “maximum contaminant level”, commonly called the “safe” level, set by the EPA for 1, 4-dioxane. Instead, the state has set “action levels”, which require regulatory action. A change in state law did increase the allowable action levels for 1,4-dioxane to 85 ppb for groundwater. The city’s settlement of its lawsuit with Pall has considerably hampered our ability to place sanctions on them, however. It negated part of the consent judgment that the city and other groups had obtained in an earlier court action (prior to the law change that relaxed action level standards). That consent judgment had required cleanup to the old standard of 3 ppb. The 2,800 ppb level is the designated action level for contaminants in water that has already reached the surface (not groundwater). Again, it does not mean that this level is safe, just that it is a regulatory action level. Pall is seeking to redefine this as not a groundwater contamination issue and to avoid the cleanup that the old consent judgment required.

    I’ve probably oversimplified something. This issue is terribly complicated and I gave Conan Smith all my files.