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Impatient with long delay, Ann Arbor pressures MDEQ to decide how much 1,4 dioxane is safe

kayaker on river
City of Ann Arbor

An official with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will address water contamination in Ann Arbor at a special meeting of the City Council Monday night at 7 p.m.

A plume of 1,4 dioxane, a carcinogenic chemical, is slowly moving through the city's groundwater.

Ann Arbor City Council member Sabra Briere hopes the state will finally announce how much of the chemical is considered safe.

She says the state has postponed making that rule for eight years. 

Briere says a decision could allow the city to re-open its lawsuit against Pall-Gelman, the company responsible for the contamination.
That could allow the city to ask that more be done to clean it up.

"There could be the establishment of even more test wells," says Briere, "to determine more about where the groundwater is going that contains the 1,4 dioxane."

Briere says it appears the plume of contamination is heading away from the area in the river where Ann Arbor draws its water, but no one knows for sure.

"The general theory is, that once it hits the water it will be so diluted it won't matter."

Since the 1980s when the plume was discovered, many private wells and a city aquifer had to be shut down because of the contamination. 

Councilman Chip Smith is also frustrated with the MDEQ.

"In light of their less-than-exemplary performance of duties in Flint," says Smith, "I think they have some serious bridge-building to do in our community."

Smith says he had hoped that someone from the state attorney general's office would attend the meeting as well, but it appears that will not happen.

Smith says "Judge (Donald) Shelton didn't do the community any favors," when he brokered the settlement of the lawsuit between the city and Pall-Gelman. He says he hopes re-opening the lawsuit would allow the city a more active role as a plaintiff.

Smith says he really hopes to avoid what he calls the "nuclear option:" Asking the federal government to declare the city's groundwater a Superfund site.

He says that would likely hurt property values for many people in Ann Arbor, and calls it a move of "absolute last resort."

Currently, the U.S. Environmental Quality considers a level of 3 parts 1,4 dioxane per billion safe. 

Some members of city council would be fine with the state deciding on a level of 7 or 8 parts per billion. 

That would still likely be enough for the city to motion the courts to re-open its lawsuit against Pall-Gelman to ask for a more thorough cleanup plan.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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