Decades of dioxane
At least it’s not a crisis:
A2’s toxic groundwater
By Anna Prushinskaya
As an Ann Arbor kid, Dan Bicknell went swimming with friends at Third Sister Lake in Saginaw Forest, just west of town. Swimming wasn’t allowed, but his friends lived at the farm next door, so he had a way in. The lake was beautiful, pristine, spring-fed.
Decades later in 1984, after Bicknell returned to Ann Arbor to study at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, he found his way back to the lake, sneaking in to swim there once in awhile.
Next to Saginaw Forest, Gelman Sciences Inc. sat uphill. The company produced, among other things, filters for medical equipment. Bicknell noticed a creek — which hadn’t been there in his childhood — flowing from the Gelman property into the lake. When he went to the company property, he could see water running down in rivulets from a plateau. “You didn’t have to be an environmentalist to go, ‘this doesn’t look kosher,’” he says.
He collected a sample and took it back to the University of Michigan Institute of Science and Technology, where it was tested for a “classroom demonstration.” That sample contained, among other chemicals, the solvent 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen in animals and a probable carcinogen in humans. Bicknell wanted to be sure, so he ran another sample and got the same results. Then, he typed a simple, skinny document with his findings and sent it to the Washtenaw County Public Health Department.
Two days later, he was in the dean’s office at the School of Public Health, explaining himself. Representatives from Gelman were calling to ask for the professor who was doing research at Third Sister Lake. Bicknell shrugged it off: “I never said I was part of the University of Michigan, I said that I was Dan Bicknell and this is what I found. So, they’ve got a problem.” The dean started laughing. “Well, I guess they do have a problem, don’t they?” he said.
That same Gelman 1,4-dioxane is spreading through groundwater under Ann Arbor and Scio Township, east through downtown Ann Arbor and north toward the Huron River and Barton Pond. Parts of Ann Arbor and Scio townships are in a zone where the use of well water is prohibited, and homes must be hooked up to city water. In 2011 that prohibition zone was expanded.
After the discovery of dioxane in 1984, Bicknell took a Gelman property walkthrough with Department of Natural Resources representatives and Gelman scientists, confirming, among other things, that a roughly four-inch pipe was the source of the sludge flowing into Third Sister Lake.
One might expect that someone who makes this type of discovery, especially in an environmentally friendly town like Ann Arbor, would be a local hero. In fact, says Bicknell, most people weren’t sure what to think. The same DNR official who was at the Gelman walkthrough with Bicknell said later that “Bicknell’s data wasn’t worth a toot.” Gelman scientists and news media, including The Ann Arbor News, cast doubts on Bicknell’s findings.
Bicknell says he distanced himself from his friends. “At that time I didn’t want to expose all these other people to the ramifications that I was going through because I knew it was politically dangerous,” he says. He was concerned in part that people close to him would be a target of personal attacks by Chuck Gelman, the president of the company, who had a reputation for getting personal with enemies. One 1997 Ann Arbor Observer feature titled “Chuck Gelman’s Last Stand” explores his history of getting personal, at one point quoting a former Gelman executive: “Chuck was deeply involved in personalities; he liked or disliked people intensely. It caused great agony when someone was out of favor.”
Chuck Gelman said Bicknell’s findings were part of a game of “political football” because, by then, Bicknell had decided to run for Washtenaw County drain commissioner. Inspired by his Gelman discovery and other pollution discoveries (including in Ypsilanti), he did some research into the office, arguing as part of his campaign that the drain commissioner could take water samples and therefore take charge of protecting the county’s water resources. (That office is now called water resources commissioner; Bicknell jokes that he was ahead of his time.)
The incumbent drain commissioner was a Democrat with a more literal approach to the job, so Bicknell ran as a Republican because he didn’t think he’d win the Democratic challenge. When people came up to him at the Republican county meetings and asked what he was doing running Republican, he’d say he didn’t know anyone who wasn’t for safe water. “It lit up in their mind,” he laughs. “Yes, right, I’m not for that either.”
He recalls that The Ann Arbor News, which had favored the incumbent, ran an article on the election, featuring a photo of his younger self with shoulder-length hair in a polo shirt instead of the photo he’d taken in a suit for the campaign. It’s still a touchy subject; when asked for a photo of himself in his longhair days, to accompany this article, he declined, providing only a current shot.
Bicknell lost that election in 1984, and moved to take a job at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Meanwhile, his Gelman findings just sat there. No one had addressed the pollution or further tested the county’s water. So, six months after moving away, Bicknell asked his friend, the one who lived on the farm next to Saginaw Forest, to circulate a petition among Gelman neighbors, asking for their wells to get tested. He presented that petition at a public meeting with press present. The wells were tested. Bicknell says his friend’s well had a dioxane concentration of 100,000,000 parts per billion (ppb). At the time, the Michigan cleanup criterion for dioxane in groundwater was 3 ppb.
Long, slow fix
After these tests, remediation began in earnest, and in 1992, Gelman settled a lawsuit with the state of Michigan with a consent judgment that outlines many detailed cleanup objectives and monitoring requirements.
That remediation continues today. Gelman was acquired by Pall Corporation in 1997, and recently, in August 2015, Danaher Corporation acquired Pall. As in the Flint water crisis, with Gelman, individual citizens brought troubling facts to light. In the case of Gelman, individuals have continued to reveal them over decades.
Roger Rayle is another such individual. He points to a spot in his backyard, a place where deer teach fawn to walk through the creek. The creek runs into the Huron River, and on and on, until eventually, there is Lake Erie. In August 1993, Rayle’s neighbor nagged him to go to a citizen-group meeting about the dioxane.
“I went to this meeting and information was presented. I imagine I probably felt like a lot of people who are in Flint do. How could this happen? Why isn’t somebody in charge of this? Why aren’t they solving the problem?”
At the time, Rayle was the vice president of a software company that helped local governments track data. “I said, I’m a problem solver. I can help define what the problem is, suggest alternative solutions, help pick the best one, and go to the decision maker and be done. Here we are, it’s 23 years later, I’m still trying to get all the information and keep the rotating decision makers informed on what’s going on.”
Bicknell calls Rayle a “blizzard of information.” Rayle calls himself a “venture catalyst.” He says he helps people and ideas get together, but he doesn’t have skin in the game. Asked how he’d explain Gelman to someone who’s not familiar with it, Rayle doesn’t have an answer at first. He pauses, shrugs. Then, he says, “Well, how deep do you want to get into it? What is your long-term commitment for it?”
Matt Naud is the city of Ann Arbor’s environmental coordinator. Rayle says that job was created in part to deal with the Gelman site. Naud says Gelman is about 10 percent of his gig; there are times when the issue is hot, and then there are long periods of nothing. It’s hot now because of Flint.
Since the pollution was discovered in 1984, the Michigan cleanup criterion for dioxane in groundwater has increased from 3 ppb to 77 ppb in 1995 and, finally, to 85 ppb in 2000. “It’s politics,” Naud says, when asked about how the dramatic loosening of the dioxane standard occurred. “Standards get changed by the Legislature, not by paid professional staff.”
The current 85 ppb standard is the “worst of all of the states that have standards,” says Rayle. Then Michigan Gov. John Engler created the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in 1995 — the year the cleanup criterion increased from 3 ppb to 77 ppb — splitting it from the DNR. One 1995 Ann Arbor News editorial suggests that the goal of this split was to “expedite permitting” to companies in the state, a suggestion that’s echoed in other media coverage across the state.
“The DEQ overall is broken,” Yousef Rabhi says. “Because, simply put, corporate interests run the DEQ.” In his third term as Washtenaw County commissioner, Rabhi has served as the county liaison to CARD, Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane, a “partnership of local governments and citizens that develops policies and strategies” for the Gelman contamination, according to ewashtenaw.org. Rabhi is running for state House to replace Jeff Irwin, who will have served the maximum number of terms. He continues, “They are not operating with the best interests of the public in mind. They are operating with the best interests of corporate interests in mind.”
Politics aside, Naud and others argue that what matters is the science. And the science is clear, according to the EPA. In 2010, the federal agency published the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) assessment for 1,4-dioxane, tightening the standard to 3.5 ppb for a cancer risk of 1 in 100,000. Naud calls IRIS “the gold standard of ‘tox’ data.”
Meanwhile, the DEQ has promised to tighten Michigan’s standard, but consistently failed, according to CARD. “(The DEQ) promised the city and all the county and township people (they would change the criteria) in 2012,” says Bicknell. “They didn’t have the ability to deliver on their promise. So it rolled to 2013. Then it rolled to 2014. Then it rolled to 2015, and now they’re saying 2016.”
Many voice the same frustration: Why has the DEQ moved so slowly?
The most recent DEQ effort to tighten the dioxane criteria is under way. A group called the Criteria Stakeholder Advisory Workgroup has worked to develop recommendations to tighten the standard and review other standards. Stakeholders include local government, consumers, environmental consultants and industry representatives, and they’ve delivered a set of recommendations to the DEQ, including the recommendation to tighten the dioxane standard. In response, the DEQ plans to release an updated rule package, a process that usually takes six to nine months, says Bob Wagner, chief of the DEQ’s Remediation and Redevelopment Division.
“We don’t need to debate the dangers of dioxane,” Rayle says. “The EPA has spoken on that. Why has it taken the state five years to accept that?”
What about the drinking water?
Data show the dioxane is spreading north and more homes on wells may become affected. In the past, some homes with contaminated wells outside the city limits have been annexed to Ann Arbor in order to be hooked up to city water.
“People on Elizabeth Road are drinking dioxane now,” Dan Bicknell says, “and have been doing so for a number of years. It’s 2-4 parts per billion. EPA standard is 3.5. The state’s done nothing about it.”
Washtenaw County Health’s Kristen Schweighoefer says that the department’s primary concern is to ensure that residents have a safe supply of drinking water. She confirms that if drinking water wells are found with 1,4-dioxane concentrations greater than the state of Michigan’s residential drinking water standard, “Washtenaw County Public Health will work closely with the DEQ and other local governments to ensure those properties are supplied an alternative source of drinking water until a permanent source can be brought to them.” Reminder: The current state standard is 85 ppb.
Farther north of the current boundary of the plume lies Barton pond, which provides about 80 percent of Ann Arbor’s water.
Dioxane getting into Barton pond is what Naud calls a “low-probability, high-consequence scenario.” However, he’s not certain this won’t happen, and the contingency plan hasn’t been defined. “We feel reasonably confident that there’s not a giant slug of this contamination out on a beeline to Barton pond. We would be more confident if there were more (monitoring) wells, and we would be even more confident if there was a contingency plan,” Naud says. “Probably never going to get to Barton, but what if it did? I want to know way before it gets to Barton. So what’s the plan, just in case? We don’t really have a contingency plan for how to pump the water out, where to get it to.”
“It’s kind of like 101,” Bicknell says. “I mean this is basic remediation, to have a contingency plan.”
Naud emphasizes that right now, Ann Arbor’s drinking water is safe and Barton pond is regularly monitored for 1,4-dioxane and other chemicals. However, dioxane has been detected before in an Ann Arbor water source. During a routine test in 2001, a trace of dioxane (1-2 ppb) was detected in water from Ann Arbor’s Northwest Supply well. That well water wasn’t being used at the time of the positive test, and as a result of the test it was immediately closed and remains closed. The Northwest Supply well provided less than 5 percent of Ann Arbor’s total source water.
“We’ve made a choice not to serve a probable carcinogen to our residents,” Naud says in reference to the Northwest Supply well. He emphasizes the word choice because if he followed state standards, he could choose to keep it open. “We had three sources of water, we now only have two. No one’s decided that it’s worth paying us for that loss at this point.”
Why they care so much
“This whole (Gelman) site could have been prevented from the get-go had people paid attention and done the right thing and looked at the data and listened,” Rayle says, referring, in part, to Bicknell’s initial findings. Rayle is particularly interested in transparency. He talks about flaws in the data, which were kept in varying ways at different times by Pall, the DEQ and third-party individuals and so are susceptible to the obvious biases and inconsistencies. “If you don’t respect the data, bad things can happen,” Rayle says.
Asked about the roots of his special interest in transparency, he responds with a question: “Wouldn’t you?” Pressed, he says only that he was raised to do the right thing. He wonders what the mothers of some of the people involved in the Gelman situation might think.
Bicknell says he was passionate about the environment before he discovered the Gelman pollution. After years as an EPA Superfund enforcement officer, he continued his career as an environmental manager for General Motors, both places where he says he hoped to do some good for the environment.
In 2009, he left GM to open a consultancy to help companies with remediation projects. That’s when he wondered whatever happened to that Gelman site, attended a CARD meeting and found it was still a mess, 30 years later.
Bicknell says almost every aspect of remediation is deficient at the Gelman site: administration, toxicity assessment, oversight of the polluter and protection of drinking water.
“There are so many major things that they have gotten wrong in this project,” he says. “The basic components of the remediation project are: What’s the cleanup level? What’s the extent of contamination? What am I going to do to clean it up?” He points to the failures to tighten the standards and to monitor the plume’s expansion and contain it as big examples of how these components haven’t been addressed in the Gelman remediation. “The shortfalls on this are unparalleled,” he said. “I’ve talked to some of my colleagues about it. There’s no remediation that compares to the absurdity of this remediation.”
Rabhi and Naud are both careful to respect the efforts of individual DEQ staff. “The DEQ staff want to do well, but there are other parts of the system that need to be working in partnership with them to really make this remediation be as protective as it can be,” Naud says. “On that end, I would fault the attorney general’s office, that they’ve just not been stronger on this. Part of it is limited budgets.”
In Bicknell’s opinion, the DEQ has failed for many reasons, including lax oversight and dismissiveness of local government and citizen input. In 2013, Bicknell put together a technical overview with remediation recommendations for DEQ, in the same way he would for any company as part of his consulting business, and delivered it by email and in person at a CARD meeting. The DEQ hasn’t responded.
“Let’s say you’re working on a house,” he says. If the contractor is messing up year after year, do you keep the contractor or do you search for another? The “other contractor” is, in this case, the EPA, which could call on the Department of Justice in what seems to be an inevitable next round of litigation with Gelman.
Back to court
At the February CARD meeting, the possibility of new lawsuits loomed. One big reason is that if the dioxane standard is tightened, the consent judgment that guides the remediation won’t be altered to match.
Mitch Adelman, remediation and redevelopment supervisor for the Jackson District, said, “(The DEQ has) been up front with Gelman, just as we have with the community, that if a state legally-enforced number is revised downward, we’re going to seek to the company to voluntarily remediate, based on that newer lower number. They, under law, have different ways they can go about that, so we’ll see how that process plays out.”
Many of those in the meeting didn’t think voluntary compliance is likely, including Schweighoefer, Washtenaw County Public Health’s environmental health director, who said, “We are committed to assisting the state to prepare for going back to court should they want our help.”
In an email, Pall Corp. spokesman Farsad Fotouhi said that Gelman “has consistently met its 1,4-dioxane groundwater contamination cleanup obligations as outlined in the consent judgment with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.” Fotouhi was abroad when we first emailed him for comment, and he said he’d talk on the phone, requesting questions in advance. After several follow-up emails to schedule time for the call, he sent the statement instead. It continues: “In fact, Gelman has twice been recognized by the prestigious National Groundwater Association for excellence in the field of groundwater remediation in connection with its implementation of the consent judgment. Gelman remains committed to fulfilling its cleanup obligations in accordance with all applicable legal requirements.”
Rayle disagrees with the statement, citing a litany of disputes between the company and DEQ relative to the consent judgment over the years. Bicknell responds to the statement with a question: “This is malarkey, right?”
“They had 30 years to do it right, they’re not doing it right,” says Bicknell of the DEQ. “For whatever reasons. The reasons are irrelevant as far as I’m concerned. … You have to go another way, and the only other way is USEPA, and that’s what they did in Flint. The USEPA was the backup. We, as citizens, don’t have another backup. I can’t go take Pall to court over a state resource.”
Bicknell’s calculations suggest the Gelman site would easily meet the “hazardous ranking score,” the measure used to determine whether the site would qualify as an EPA Superfund site. Established in 1980, the Superfund program gives EPA money and authority to clean up polluted sites, according to EPA.gov. The aim of the program is to clean up hazardous waste sites and to force responsible parties to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for cleanups led by the EPA.
For the past six months, Bicknell has been working behind the scenes to educate township, city and county officials about petitioning the EPA for Superfund status. According to Bicknell, a group that includes city, township and county officials has discussed the option with the EPA, and the EPA has informed the DEQ about this discussion. Bicknell says these stakeholders are close to a decision regarding petitioning. He says the community’s exploration of this option shows the level of disappointment with the handling of remediation over the past 30 years.
Rayle says that the night he attended the meeting with his neighbor back in 1993, he couldn’t sleep. He says he stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning writing notes: “We need to do this, this should be our angle. … Every few years I dig (that note pad) up and look to see how many things have actually happened.”
“Here we are in Michigan,” Rayle says. “The shape of Michigan is literally defined by one fifth of the world’s fresh surface water. We’re stewards to that … and we have some of the worst standards and some of the least transparency.”
The DEQ has seen some spotlight lately. National coverage of the Flint water crisis has revealed missteps. In one recent New York Times report, an EPA statement noted simply: “Although (the EPA) communicated steps to treat the water in Michigan, ‘those necessary actions were not taken as quickly as they should have been.’”
Naud says Flint is different. “I don’t have babies drinking this,” he says about the dioxane. “Flint is a crisis. What we have here is a problem.”
Asked about failures in his role as watchdog to the Gelman site, Rayle mentions Flint, too. “Unlike Flint, this is a long-term disaster,” he says. “How do you communicate a complex problem to the public when the public assumes somebody else has taken care of this? When the public finds out the government doesn’t really care about this, what’s the course of action? That’s what Flint’s going through right now. (The Flint water crisis) should not have been a problem, this should have been routine good government making sure the right thing happens, and somehow that doesn’t.” He calls his real success bearing witness. “Try to keep a good archive of information and use it.”
As for Bicknell, he said now he’s contributing back where he started. “I kind of sometimes tease people,” he says. “Well, this was my first and my last remediation site.”
Editor’s note, March 16, 2016: We corrected a photo caption after receiving the following message from Roger Rayle —
City Council, if …