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Lack Of Proper Testing Keeps Gelman Disaster A Secret For 17 Months

Lack Of Proper Testing Keeps Gelman Disaster A Secret For 17 Months image Lack Of Proper Testing Keeps Gelman Disaster A Secret For 17 Months image
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ed. note: In the article, "When Watchdogs Only Bark, " (AGENDA, July 1987), staff writerJeff Gearhañ reponed that Gelman Science slnc. had been illegally discharging waste water from their manufacturing process into Third Sister Lake via a drainage ditch (Bicknell Creek) without a state surface water discharge permit since 1984. The following article by Brian Ewart, an environmental advocate working with the citizen's groupTocsin, fleshes out and updates this incredible story. Many of the documents used in the text were obtained through FOIA requests. On July 29, 1987, aftcr ihree years of knowlcdgc that Gelman Sciences Inc. did not have a perrnit for their Bicknell Creek discharge, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) suddenly moved to forcé Gelman to comply with the law. In response to pressure from the DNR to obtain the proper permit. Gelman agreed to stop the flow of their waste water into Bicknell Creek. "As of July 31," according to an August 3, 1987 letter from Gelman administrator Paul Chalmer to the DNR, "the stream is receiving only siormwater . . . Accordingly, we are withdrawing our surface discharge application." The DNR's sudden switch from leniency to strict enforcement, and Gelman's rapid compliance was neither heralded by area politicians nor reponed by the local media. It was a remarkable silence, but it was a silence not completely unexpected by those área residente involved in the effort to clean up water pollution in the vicinity of Gelman Sciences, Inc., an area classified by the DNR as the second worst environmental hazard in Michigan. While Gelman's illegal discharge received occasional attention during the preceding months, it was only after the citizen's group Tocsin sent evidence of the illegal discharge to the Attomey General and only after this evidence was made public in AGENDA that there was a concerted effort to make the corporation either obtain a permit or shut down the discharge. Bickncll's Odyssey In the spring of 1984, U-M Public Health gradúate student Daniel Bicknell, discovered Gelman's illegal discharge while taking water samples from Third Sister Lake. Third Sister is a fifteen acre lake located in the University's Saginaw Forest adjacent to the Gelman facility. Bicknell's tests providcd the first indication of what is now recognized as a massive case of groundwater and surface water 1,4-Dioxane chemical contamination. In April 1984, shortly before graduating with a Masters Degree in Environmental and Industral Health, Bicknell had Dr. Clifford Rice, former Research Scicntist for the University of Michigan's Institute of Science and Technology (IST), conduct tests (gas chromotography and mass spectrometry) on water samples collected from Third Sister Lake. The test results revealed small concentrations of dioxane, 0.286 parts per billion (ppb), tetrahydrofuran, 0.286 ppb, and other chemicals. These chemicals were identical to some of those known to be used by Gelman, a manufacturar of industrial filters. On June 6, 1984, Bicknell filed as the sole Republican candidate for county drain commissioner by submitting a petition with 309 signatures. Bicknell claims he entered the race largely because he wanted to address a number of contamination problems in the county- In late June, 1984 Bicknell began distributing copies of his study ("Hazardous Waste Introductions into Third Sister Lake, Washtenaw County, Michigan") and discussing its test results and conclusions with DNR and Washtenaw County officials. On July 23, Berry Johnson, Washtenaw County Public Health Engineer, sent a copy of the study to the DNR. In his cover letter, Johnson wrote, "It does appear that some further testing would be helpful to determine if there is some possible problem of chemicals being introduced into the groundwater or surface water in this area. We would recommend further testing be done." On August 7, 1984, further sampling by Bicknell and analysis by IST, confirmed the first teste of Third Sister Lake (.3 ppb dioxane). The testing also revealed that waste water Gelman discharged into a drainage ditch leading directly to the lake (later named Bicknell Creek by Gelman official Tim Gibelyou) was contaminated with levéis of dioxane twenty times higher (6 ppb). The next week Bicknell met with DNR officials and Gelman staff to tour the Gelman (see GELMAN, page 8) Gene Hall, the DNR water quality specialist who investigated charges of Gelman's 1,4-dioxane contamination, stated in a recent interview that the reason the DNR's dioxane test results always carne back "No Detect" was because the DNR lab could not test for dioxane. Hall maintains that the reason agency officials nformed Gelman, Bicknell and the public that the DNR's test results for dioxane, tetrahydrafuran and hexane were negative was because the lab had never run the tests for the chemicals and DNR staff members had simply not understood their test results. Dan Bicknell, whose tests first identified the contamination problem, says the DNR fully understood the limits of its tests for dioxane in 1984, but made a decisión to rely on tests obtained by Gelman Sciences, Inc. GELMAN (f rom page 1 ) site and examine the surface water discharge and the drainage ditch leading to Third Sister Lake. According to Bicknell, both DNR officials and Gelman personnel agreed that the waste water discharge was illegal. DNR officials are reponed to have told the corporate rep-resentatives that the company had to obtain a National Pollution Discharge Elimination .ystem (NPDES) permit. DNR documents also suggest the agency took Bicknell's findings seriously, "His study raises queslions regarding the potential impact of the Gelman Company wastes discharges on the surface and groundwater" (DNR Interoffice Communication, August 27, 1984.) In the same memo District Supervisor, Ronald Kooistra, reponed that during the previous month's site tour with Gelman Staff and Bicknell, "We observed an unpcrmitted discharge ..." Gene Hall, a DNR water quality specialist who toured the site with Bicknell, was later quoted in an article by Charles Child, "DNR seeks source of Scio township Lake's contaminant" (Ann Arbor News, September 16, 1984) as saying, "I'm inclined to believe Bicknell's data is not worth a toot. It's extremely suspect." As the DNR and Gelman prepared to conduct their own tests, Bicknell's doubts about their testing procedures were at least as strong as their doubts about his procedures. On September 27, 1984, before their test results were released, Bicknell wrote his concerns to the EPA Región Five headquarters in Chicago and asked them to intervene. "The DNR has stated . . . that they would not be able to get down to the parts per billion range . . . (Gelman's) outside lab ... can't get below 10 ppb . . . and (has) held their samples past 14 days before analysis ..." He concluded with a plea for assistance, "Since the DNR admits it lacks technical capabilities I am requesting the USEPA to please look into this situation. It has taken on political overtones." At a meeting with Gelman on October 9, 1984, the agency presented analyses results which revealed the DNR found no dioxane contamination. Gelman informed the DNR that the tests conducted by Cantón Analytic Labs (CAL) also proved negative, but, allegedly, did not provide its analyses results. DNR staff notes reponed the situation, "Gelman - The CAL test data confirm DNR tests - did not confirm Bicknell's reponed results. Gelman now prefers to let that matter drop." The DNR, however, demanded a copy of the complete CAL report. It was sent three days later by Gelman's attorney, Philip Grashoff, Jr., who stated, "Since the report substantiatcs the MDNR results, it is the company's understanding that it need not undertake any additional activity relating to the Bicknell charges." The DNR and Bicknell also wanted the results of another series of tests conducted for Gelman by the IST July 31, 1984. These test results were important both because they were more sophisticated than the DNR tests and because it was the IST lab that first analyzed Bicknell's samples. As Gene Hall recalls, during the October 9, 1984 meeting, Grashoff refused to reveal the IST test results because they "would not serve any useful purpose." The groundwater and surface water contamination problem, as well as the illegal discharge faded from public view after Bicknell's defeat for drain commissioner in the November, 1984 election. Dcspite his defeat, Bicknell continued his efforts to obtain evidence of contamination in the lake and drain. In a January 23, 1985 letter to Bicknell, Hall responded to a Bicknell request for the IST test results by relaying the company's position, "As it stands now, Gelman's attorney has stated that Gelman will not release those results to us due to the fact that they feel the results are inconclusive." A March 8, 1985 DNR letter to Grashoff seemed to signal the agency 's final retreat from any furthcr attempts to acquire Gelman's test results. Indicating the agency's willingness to settle for the test results it obtained six months earlier, the Site Assessment Unit wrote, "Thank you for providing me with the CAL and MDNR sample data for the Gelman Sciences, Inc. facility. Based on this information, the site listing for Gelman has been changed to include nothing in the 'Resources Affected' column, and groundwater, soil, and surface water in the 'Resources Potentially Affected' column." With that, the DNR "let that matter drop." Unlike the DNR and Gelman, Bicknell did not let the matter drop. In late April, 1985 he organized área residente to petition the county to test their wells. When he did not see any evidence of progress toward a county testing program two weeks after presenting the petition to Dr. Atwater, Medical Director of the Washtenaw County Health Department, Bicknell presented the petition to the County Commissioners at a public meeting covered by the press. The following day, May 16, 1985, the Ann Arbor News reported his presentation in an article entitled, "Former candidate revives water-quality issue." In June, 1985, Bicknell left Ann Arbor for employment with the Hazardous Waste Enforcement Branch of the USEPA, Región V in Chicago. In September 1985, county health officials began a testing program that traced the plume of contamination that today ranks Gelman as the second worst site in the state. Subsequent tests found Third Sister Lake to be contaminated with the suspected carcinogen 1,4-dioxane at a level of 510 ppb. The state limitation for dioxane in drinking water is 2 ppb and the limitation for body contact is 100 ppb. The same studies found Honey Creek, a creek that drains the Gelman property, to be contaminated with 2000 ppb dioxane, and an adjacent wetland to be contaminated with 20,000 ppb. DNR files do not indícate, nor do staff members recall that Gelman ever released the earlier IST results. It is unfortunate because if the results indicated the presence of dioxane contamination, it is possible that those people drinking from contaminated residential wells would have discovered the problem at a much earlier date. It is also unfortunate because if Gclman's IST results supported Bicknell's fmdings, it is more likely the DNR staff working on the case would have discovered what they now claim was a serious error in the interpretation of their test results. Gene Hall, the DNR water quality specialist who investiated charges of Gelman's 1,4-dioxane contamination, stated in a recent interview that the reason the DNR's dioxane test results always carne back "No Detect" was because the DNR lab could not test for dioxane. Hall maintains the reason agency officials informed Gelman, Bicknell and the public that the DNR's test results for dioxane, tetrahydrofuran and hexane were negative was because the lab had never run the tests for the chemicals and DNR staff members had simply not understood their test results. Dan Bicknell, whose tests first identified the contamination problem, says the DNR fully understood the limits of its tests for dioxane in 1984, but made a decisión to rely on tests obtained by Gelman Sciences, Inc. In a recent interview. Dr. Berry Johnson, Washtenaw County's Director of Environmental Health, stated that the county's request of the State Health Department for well water testing in September 1985 would not have happened if it werc not for the Bicknell initiated petition of April, 1985. Johnson explained that the "petition clearly indicated a concern in the community of more than just one person." Prior to that, according to Johnson, "the county had no indications of contaminated drinking water. There were concerns, but no indications." When asked why the county had not taken the initiative on well testing whcn the first evidence of contamination was found by Bicknell in 1984, Johnson cites a lack of resources and of established EPA testing procedures that would put Bicknell's findings in a meaningful context. Whcn attention was at last focused on the existing contamination, however, there was no corrcsponding action taken by the county or the DNR to stop Gelman's illegal waste discharge into Bicknell Creek. Tocsin takcs the ball In August 1986, while conducting research in prcparation for the public hearings on Gelman's dcep well permit, the environmental group Tocsin discovered Gelman was still operating the surface water discharge illegally. The statement Tocsin presentcd to the EPA in September, 1986 mentioned the discharge: "Gelman has been illegally disposing of some (of its) operation's waste through an open pipe to the local surface waters; without the proper NPDES permit ..." The group sent copies of its statement to a number of state govemment officials. When the govemor's environmental aid, David Dempsey, asked Gordon Guyer, Director of the DNR, "for a briefing," the DNR's response assurcd the govcmor's aid that Gelman had obtained a NPDES permit in 1978. However, the DNR cited the wrong discharge and cited the wrong permit. By December 1986, the DNR had neither stopped the discharge nor forced the Corporation to comply with the NPDES permit requirements. In a letter dated December 22, 1986 Tocsin informed Dempsey of the DNR's reference to the wrong discharge and again requested that Gelman be ordered to apply for the correct NPDES permit for the discharge leading into Bicknell Creek. On June 12, 1987 Tocsin again asked Govemor Blanchard to intervene. On this occasion, the group sent copies of their request for action within 30 days to Attomey General Kelley's office, state and county politicians, and the press. Tocsin's press release provided evidence of the illegal discharge and included Tocsin's letter requesting that the govemor have it discontinued. The information remained unpublishcd until AGENDA printed it in its July edition. Diane Hebert, Toxics Coördinator for the Greenpeace Great Lakes Office, believes that once the pollution was discovered, it was irresponsible for local and state authorities to keep the public at risk by not fully pursuing the issues raised by Bicknell. "The Gelman case clearly shows that despite Arm Arbor's progressive reputation, when individuals and organizations working to protect the environment threaten the economie and political status quo, the battles can be just as tough in Ann Arbor as they are elsewhere."