What’s the Deal with Dioxane?

Make your voice heard by attending the town hall meeting with Keith Creagh, acting director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on April 18, 6-8:30 p.m. inside the auditorium at Eberwhite Elementary School, 800 Soule Blvd.

Make your voice heard by attending the town hall meeting with Keith Creagh, acting director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on April 18, 6-8:30 p.m. inside the auditorium at Eberwhite Elementary School, 800 Soule Blvd.

A brief history: 1,4 dioxane is an industrial solvent that was used by Gelman Sciences in the manufacture of medical filters. According to the EPA, dioxane is a carcinogen. Gelman disposed of the solvent by spraying it on the ground, storing it in lagoons, and injecting it into the ground. This has led to the contamination of many people’s wells and concerns about the long-term risk to Ann Arbor’s drinking water.

There is currently  no 1,4 dioxane in Ann Arbor Water. We regularly test for dioxane in our water supply using highly-sensitive tests. It has not shown up. Several years ago one of our supply wells was contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, and the City took that well out of service, even though the level of dioxane was below the state and federal standards.

There is a long-term risk of 1,4 dioxane contamination of Ann Arbor Water. The bulk of the City’s water supply comes from Barton Pond. If the plume were to reach the pond, there is a risk that the City could be forced to find a different water supply.

There are two potential contamination routes. If the plume were to move northward and “vent” into Barton Pond directly, or if the plume were to continue to westward and “vent” into Honey Creek, which feeds into Barton Pond.

This is a long-term, not short-term, risk. The rate of expansion of the plume is slow, so any risk is likely years away.

There are factors that reduce this risk. The plume is below the level of the pond and creek, so even if the plume reaches these waterways, it may stay below the creek or pond water level and not contaminate the city drinking water. Furthermore, the Barton Dam creates a dynamic where below-ground water movement would help move the contamination away from the pond. However, the glaciers left behind a complicated hydrology in this area, so these factors are not a guarantee of safety.

Better monitoring is needed to ensure we stay safe. There is a network of monitoring wells to track the expansion of the plume. However, as it expands, it is reaching into areas with fewer monitoring wells, which hampers our ability to track the expansion and protect our drinking water.

Just because Ann Arbor is safe doesn’t mean everyone is safe. Recently the Ann Arbor News reported on a family in Scio Township who was drinking contaminated water above the EPA recommended exposure level.

The Michigan standards for 1,4 dioxane in drinking water are terrible, but getting better. The standard for 1,4 dioxane levels in drinking water is 85 parts per billion. The EPA recommended standard is 3.5 parts per billion. After some delay, the State of Michigan is updating the standard, and recently they announced the updated standard is proposed to be 7.2 parts per billion.

The best way to reduce the risk is to increase cleanup. The spread of the plume toward Barton pond and the exposure of families to unsafe levels of 1,4 dioxane shows that the policy of trying to contain the contamination and the current levels of dioxane remediation have been inadequate. A higher level of cleanup is needed.

Updating the Michigan Standards is only the first step. The cleanup of the plume is in the hands of the courts. After the State updates the standard, then it will be up to the Michigan Attorney General’s office to seek a more vigorous cleanup under the revised standards.

The underfunding of the Department of Environmental Quality is a major problem. The dioxane plume is just one of many environmental risks that face our state, and many of the staff people we have worked with on this issue have been great, but over-stretched. To keep our drinking water safe and everyone’s water safe, our state needs to adequately fund environmental protection efforts.

Dioxane and the Golden Rule: As the disaster in Flint has broken, I have been thinking more about the “Golden Rule” and public policy. In short, if the policy makers would not subject themselves to the outcome of a public policy decision, then the outcome is not good enough.

  • If the water in Flint isn’t good enough for the the Governor and Emergency Manager and their kids and grandkids, then it’s not good enough.
  • If the bus service isn’t good enough for me to ride the buses, then it isn’t good enough.
  • If the public housing is in such poor condition that I wouldn’t stay there, then it isn’t good enough.  

As this applies to dioxane, even with the revised exposure levels, I wouldn’t drink water with 7.2 parts per billion dioxane, and I certainly wouldn’t let my kids drink it. So while I celebrate the steps forward, I see much more work to do to ensure that the water is safe for everybody.

Next Steps: Thanks to the hard work of State Representative Jeff Irwin, Keith Creagh, acting director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will be at a town hall meeting to discuss the toxic plume of dioxane that’s spreading through the groundwater in Ann Arbor and Scio Township on April 18, 6-8:30 p.m. inside the auditorium at Eberwhite Elementary School, 800 Soule Blvd.

An alternative approach: Given the limited success we’ve had with getting an adequate cleanup through the State and the courts, there is growing discussion of requesting the site be designated an EPA superfund site. The City, County, and townships are exploring this option.

Credit where credit is due: Much thanks goes to engaged citizens such as Dan Bicknell who first discovered the contamination, Roger Rayle who has tracked and mapped the data tirelessly, and the members of Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane. They have helped ensure that the City, County, Townships, and State remain focused on the issue.