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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 writer Jeff Gearhart reported 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.

Lack of proper testing keeps Gelman disaster a secret for 17 months

by Brian Ewart

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 lab could not test for dioxane. Hall maintains that the reason agency officials informed Gelman, Bicknell and th epublic 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 memebers had simply not understood their test results. Dan Bicknell, whose tests first identified the contamination problem, says DNR fully understood the limits of its tests for dioxane inn 1984, but made a decision to rely on tests obtained by Gelman Sciences, Inc.

On July 29, 1987, after three years of knowledge that Gelman Sciences Inc. did not have a permit for their Bicknell Creek discharge, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) suddenly moved to force 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 stormwater . . . 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 reported by the local media. It was a remarkable silence, but it was a silence not completely unexpected by those area residents 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 Attorney 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 graduate 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 provided 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 Industrial 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 manufacturer 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 tests 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 levels 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)