Playing Politics With Ann Arbor’s Drinking Water and the Massive 1,4 Dioxane Clean-Up
by P.D. Lesko
Groundwater beneath the city of Ann Arbor is currently contaminated by the suspected carcinogen 1,4 dioxane. On August 3rd, in a piece about the Ward 1 City Council race, A2Politico pointed out that Ward 1 City Council member Sabra Briere had never put forth any resolution in response to what local environmentalists have complained is a slow, inefficient and ultimately ineffective clean-up of the 3 mile long and mile wide plume of suspected cancer causing 1,4 dioxane that experts suggest is headed toward Barton Pond, which provides 85 percent of the city’s drinking water. Ann Arbor’s Gelman/Pall 1,4 dioxane disaster is one of the largest groundwater clean-up actions in the United States, and Pall has pumped out over 5 billion gallons of water and removed over 75,000 pounds of dioxane. Below is a map first published in the Ann Arbor News that shows where the plume began and shows its spread.
Not only has Sabra Briere never made the environmental time bomb in her own Ward 1 a campaign issue, she even took a campaign donation from Charles Gelman. It was Gelman’s company (which he subsequently sold) that created the environmental disaster and poisoned several aquifers in Scio Township and Ann Arbor. Charles Gelman then used the courts to fight having to pay for the clean-up of the 1,4 dioxane. The groundwater contamination began in 1976, when dioxane was used as a solvent by Gelman Sciences, Inc., as part of its process of manufacturing medical filters. The waste stream from this process included wastewater contaminated with 1,4 dioxane. This wastewater was stored in open lagoons and began to enter the soil below and around the lagoons. Gelman Sciences was also found to have illegally pumped water from its lagoons into a nearby marsh, and sprayed the contaminated wastewater on its own lawns.
This 2013 fact sheet about 1,4 dioxane from the EPA is a must read.
After the August 3rd A2Politico piece, and now that she is facing two challengers in the November 2013 general election, one of whom (Hayner) who has been vocal about his concerns related to water quality in general and the 1,4 dioxane clean-up, Briere is co-sponsoring a resolution concerning the 1,4 dioxane clean-up. She claims the resolution “has been in the works for about a month.” Imagine. A whole month. Yes, that’s right. After spending six years in office doing nothing about the 1,4 dioxane plume spreading beneath her constituents’ homes and gardens, Sabra Briere toiled for an entire month coming up with what those who’ve been working on the issue for years suggest is a half-baked plan to deal with a plume of 1,4 dioxane that has been spreading and poisoning the city’s groundwater since the 70s. In election years, after all, no environmental time bomb is too complicated to resolve before voters go to the polls.
AnnArbor.com posted a piece about Briere’s resolution, and readers were quick to suggest the Ward 1 Council member is playing politics with the health and safety of city residents. One reader had this to say about Briere’s conveniently-timed resolution: “This issue deserves true action from our leaders. Show us action, and not silly, impotent ‘sabra-rattling’ resolutions.” Another reader writes: “It does ring hollow at election time to create some drama while not dealing with something the city did while they are at the wheel. Just saying.”
Briere unwittingly underscored her own abysmal track record on the issue since 2007 with respect to the 1,4 dioxane clean-up when she told AnnArbor.com: ”This is an ongoing problem — it’s not new…” Briere also added for emphasis: “I don’t want people exposed to cancer-causing agents we can avoid….” Prior to 2013, Briere wasn’t fretting about cancer-causing agents polluting the groundwater in her ward. In this 2009 video made when she ran for re-election, she talks about the river, and coming up with a “plan for its use,” as well as its “clean-up.” She does not, however, have anything to say about the fact that Ward 1 residents were being exposed to cancer-causing agents or that those cancer-causing agents were headed toward Barton Pond, where our city gets most of its drinking water.
The resolution, which she co-sponsored with Ward 5 Council member Chuck Warpehoski, “directs the city administrator and city staff to explore other actions available to the city, including but not limited to meeting with and petitioning the EPA to aid in setting appropriate cleanup criteria for 1,4-dioxane in Michigan, including the Pall-Gelman plume and without site specific criteria for the Pall-Gelman plume, and to cooperate with other local units of government to ensure protection of public health and the environment.” Below, you can read the entire text of the resolution which Briere intends to present to City Council at its next meeting:
Whereas, The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) establishes generic cleanup criteria for hazardous substances under the authority of Part 201 of the Michigan Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, that are intended to be protective of human health and the environment from a variety of exposure pathways;
Whereas, These criteria are used by MDEQ in enforcement actions against polluters and other liable parties;
Whereas, The current MDEQ 1,4-dioxane generic residential drinking water cleanup criterion was set a number of years ago at 85 parts per billion (ppb) to result in a one-in-a-hundred-thousand (1 in 100,000) residual cancer risk;
Whereas, In 2010, US EPA published a toxicological review of 1,4-dioxane recommending a steeper cancer slope factor, effectively lowering the drinking water residual cancer risk levels to 35 ppb for 1 in 10,000 and 3.5 ppb for 1 in 100,000;
Whereas, The US EPA has categorized 1,4-dioxane as a non-threshold carcinogen;
Whereas, California and Illinois lowered their drinking water guidance levels to 1 ppb, while Massachusetts set its guidance at 0.3 ppb;
Whereas, The MDEQ missed its self-imposed deadline of December 2012 to set new standards or cleanup criteria for 1,4-dioxane, which were to be based on the EPA toxicological review;
Whereas, The MDEQ’s deadline for revising the cleanup criteria administrative rules was extended until December 31, 2013; however it appears to be unlikely that the MDEQ will meet that deadline;
Whereas, The Pall-Gelman plume has been of ongoing concern to Ann Arbor and surrounding communities given the risks to public, human health and the environment;
Whereas, The footprint of the Pall-Gelman 1,4-dioxane plume continues to expand, although the extent of that expansion is not clearly defined;
Whereas, Additional data and modeling, are needed to help define and predict the areas, direction and rate of expansion of its1,4-dioxane plume;
Whereas, Ann Arbor has been unsuccessful in its efforts to be considered by the Circuit Court for Washtenaw County as an interested party in the lawsuit brought by the Michigan Attorney General on behalf of the MDEQ against Pall-Gelman regarding the Pall-Gelman 1,4-dioxane plume and its cleanup;
Whereas, Pall-Gelman has not been required by the MDEQ and the Circuit Court for Washtenaw County to predict with sufficient accuracy the areas, direction and rate of expansion of its 1,4-dioxane plume; and
RESOLVED, That the City of Ann Arbor City Council urges the MDEQ to act responsibly and protect the public health and environment of Michigan under the authority delegated to the State under the Clean Water Act;
RESOLVED, That the City of Ann Arbor City Council urges the MDEQ to use the best science now available from EPA, including but not limited to the classification of 1,4-dioxane as a non-threshold carcinogen, to set cleanup criteria that are protective of public health and the environment for 1,4-dioxane and other chemicals;
RESOLVED, That the City of Ann Arbor City Council directs the city administrator and city staff to explore other actions available to the city, including but not limited to meeting with the MDEQ to aid in setting appropriate cleanup criteria for 1,4-dioxane in Michigan, including the Pall-Gelman plume and without site specific criteria for the Pall-Gelman plume;
RESOLVED, That the City of Ann Arbor City Council directs the city administrator and city staff to explore other actions available to the city, including but not limited to meeting with and petitioning the EPA to aid in setting appropriate cleanup criteria for 1,4-dioxane in Michigan, including the Pall-Gelman plume and without site specific criteria for the Pall-Gelman plume, and to cooperate with other local units of government to ensure protection of public health and the environment; and
RESOLVED, That a copy of this resolution be sent to the Washtenaw County delegation to the Michigan Legislature, the Governor of the State of Michigan, the Director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Congressman John D Dingell.
A former EPA staffer suggested that the proposed resolution reads as though “all the phrases related to dioxane that someone could think of were thrown together without much thought. It requests multiple actions without acknowledging the past history.” Vince Caruso is a member of the county’s Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane (CARD), and a long-time activist who has tried mightily to get local officials to take an interest in this issue. He commented in response to the AnnArbor.com article about Briere and Warpehoski’s resolution. Caruso writes, “The resolution is something after years of inaction by the city, but it would have been more effective to have done a better job vetting the resolution. It has some errors and really doesn’t ask for much. Would have helped to have reached out to others in the effort.”
Other politicos and neighborhood activists have questioned why Briere co-sponsored the resolution with new Ward 5 Council member Chuck Warpehoski and had John Hieftje helping her edit. Hieftje, who has enjoyed the support of the Huron River Watershed Council and the HRWC’s Executive Director Laura Rubin, as well as the endorsements of Clean Water Action, has done next to nothing to push the EPA to step in and help with one of the nation’s biggest water clean ups. In 2003, he refused to step up on the 1,4 dioxane issue when asked by a county commissioner to do so. Campaign finance forms show that Hieftje, like Briere, has taken campaign donations from Charles Gelman.
Unlike Briere, Hieftje and Warpehoski, Ward 5 Council member Mike Anglin has been actively working on a multitude of issues relating to the clean-up of the 1,4 dioxane plume for several years, as a large section of Ward 5 has already been impacted. Briere didn’t bother to talk to Anglin. Along with her claim that the resolution had been in the works for over a month, over the course of the time she was meeting with city staff, Briere neglected to communicate with Council colleagues concerning her desire to bring forth this resolution. Ward 2 Council member Jane Lumm expressed gratitude for Briere’s efforts, but dismay at Briere’s exceedingly poor communication and bad process.
Others want to make sure that Briere doesn’t politicize the issue for her own benefit. The fact that she neglected to let other Council colleagues know that she was engaged in extensive discussions with city staff on the issue, and neglected to request that staff provide background information and updates to all City Council members suggest that she is using the issue to boost her re-election efforts.
“Sabra learned the game from Hieftje,” explained one exasperated Council member. “Take all the credit and none of the blame. This is a serious and complicated problem that requires a careful and multi-faceted approach. She’s playing politics big time, and offering a seat-of-the-pants plan to help her re-election campaign.”
Vince Caruso distills the issue: “It is going to be kind of hard to be Michigan’s ‘Cool City’ when you have no drinking water.”
If (says Briere) and when (says CARD member Caruso and others) the Gelman/Pall plume hits Barton Pond, that’s exactly what Ann Arbor residents will face.
In this excellent 2011 WEMU interview with Roger Rayle, Rayle talks frankly about the 1,4 dioxane threat to Barton Pond, as well as problems with the clean-up effort. He questions whether the state of Michigan can and will enforce court-mandated clean-up activities. Rayles is the co-chair of the group Scio Residents for Safe Water, and has been working to raise public awareness about the 1,4 dioxane disaster for over 20 years.
“Pall has removed more 1,4 dioxane then they said was down there,” explains Rayle, in his interview with WEMU reporter David Fair, “but Pall wants to cut back drastically on its monitoring. We need more public awareness about this, and more people involved. We need to start to be outraged that this has been allowed to happen.”
In summer 2013 Pall Life Sciences announced the company was shuttering its offices in Ann Arbor. Whether Ann Arbor’s Ward 1 voters will tell Sabra Briere to pack up her political aspirations, take her myopic focus on zoning and hit the road remains to be seen.
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