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Pall cleanup expands with recent findings

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Pall cleanup expands with recent finding

Taint spreads farther, deeper

First of two parts. 



In a small metal building along busy Wagner Road past the west side of Ann Arbor in Scio Township, a dozen people work full-time on the largest U.S. ground-water cleanup east of the Mississippi River.


Cutting-edge machinery hums around the clock, pumping and treating water tainted with a cancer-causing chemical. The company responsible for the pollution is spending $5 million a year cleaning it up.


Yet despite the millions Pall Life Sciences has spent and the billion-plus gallons it has treated, the chemical - called 1,4-dioxane - has slipped away, seeping farther and deeper into the ground than thought possible. It found its way more than 200 feet below ground into the deepest aquifer, known as Level E, which makes its way under Ann Arbor and toward file Huron River.


Now drilling rigs are showing up farther inside Ann Arbor. Residents are likely to see cleanup efforts - drilling, pumping and treating water - in the city over the coming years on both city and private property.


One well used for Ann Arbor’s public water supply has been shut down as a precaution and geologists say it’s possible that the dioxane plume may migrate into the river - the source of about 80 percent of Ann Arbor’s water. The plume could also continue to spread into private wells west of the city.


It’s a significant development for Washtenaw County’s most contentious, protracted environmental cleanup, slowed for years by lawsuits, court injunctions and political sparring.


Until recently, officials Pall, which makes medical filters, thought the end of the cleanup was in sight: They would finish by July 2005, the deadline imposed by a circuit court judge. Well monitoring would probably continue; there might be ongoing cleanup of a wetland on Pall property. But the removal of decades-old contamination would be done.

See PLUME, A11


Workers drill a well in January at the Pall Life Sciences plant on Wagner Road.

More coverage

DEQ wants to collect fines now

Continued from A1


All that has changed.

Although Ann Arbor officials say they're confident that people on municipal water lines are safe, the city's Montgomery Well which, with another well supplies 20 percent of the city's water supply, was taken off-line last spring as a precaution after tiny amounts of dioxane were found in it.

Pall must now drill new wells to find the expanding contamination and pinpoint the best location, possibly within Ann Arbor, for drawing water out for treatment from the depths of 200-plus feet.

"With the growth going on in this area, we cannot afford to bypass any source of potable water," said County Commissioner Vivienne Armentrout, D-Ann Arbor. "What's happening with the migration into lower aquifers underscores the importance of doing really aggressive remediation."

The pollution expands

After years of drilling test wells on the west side of the city, Pall officials believe they've defined dioxane's reach in upper aquifers. But they haven't figured out how far into the city the "E" aquifer contamination goes. Experts from all sides agree the aquifer likely empties into the Huron River. If the pollution plume reaches the river, it will be diluted so much it's unlikely to pose any threat; levels may not even be detectable.

But no one wants the dioxane to reach the river. The city has increased its water tests at the Huron River intake pipe from a quarterly schedule to a monthly one.

This latest hurdle could prove costly for the company. If Pall, which employs 500 locally, fails to meet its cleanup deadline in less than 3 1/2 years from now, it faces up to $5 million in accumulated fines for cleanup discharge and deadline violations. 

At a December status hearing, Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Donald Shelton, who ordered the five-year deadline, told Pall the Department of environmental Quality officials to stop squabbling over details and do what was needed to clean the groundwater.

"There's obviously a fire here, going on underground," he said at the hearing. Pall must now drill new wells to find the contamination and pinpoint the best location, possibly within Ann Arbor, for purging water from depths of 200-plus feet.

The chemical

Dioxane is not the same as its more infamous chemical cousin, dioxin.

Dioxin refers to a group of bioaccumulative, carcinogenic, toxic compounds that are byproducts of some industrial processes. It's nasty stuff.

In contrast, 1,4 dioxane is a man-made compound used as a solvent in a number of industries. It's an effective degreaser often used in making shampoos and other cosmetic and cleaning products. Pall's predecessor, Gelman Science Inc., used it to help make industrial and medical filters. 

Studies of rats and mice fed high concentrations of dioxane through drinking water developed tumors of the kidney, liver, and nasal cavities. EPA test data show that large quantities, high concentrations and prolonged exposure can be toxic.

In one test, dogs fed large amount of dioxane died after nine days with severe liver and kidney damage. Another test showed liver and kidney damage in rabbits and guinea pigs after repeated dioxane application to the skin. Although a known carcinogen in animals, it's classified as a "probable human carcinogen" by the U.S. Environmental protection agency. That classification is enough to scare most people.

Demetrios Politis, who lives next to Honey Creek, uses bottled water to drink, cook, and wash food, although his well tested clean a couple of years ago.

"My wife refuses to drink it," said Politis, a retiree who has lived in his North Wagner Road home since 1971. "And who would buy a house when there is no water?"

Not everyone thinks it's a dire pollution problem, though. Richard Skeean, a Honey Creek-area resident and chemist, said he's not concerned about the safety of his well. 

"Dioxane doesn't compare unfavorably with things we consume regularly," he said, adding that he wouldn't hesitate to drink water that had concentrations of 60 ppb in it. Under state regulations, that's considered safe to drink. Gelman Sciences, the company's name before its 1997 purchase by New York-based Pall Corp., used dioxane for more than 20 years to make its filters. The solvent made IVs and other equipment stronger. Local entrepreneur Charles Gelman started the company in his basement and located it near the corner of Wagner and Liberty in the 1960s. 

With no sewer access, the company obtained a permit from the state to discharge its dioxane-tainted wastewater into unlined lagoons on its property. Eventually, lagoons reached capacity and the company got a permit for spray irrigation. They disposed of the wastewater by spraying it on fields on its property.

In 1986, two years after a University of Michigan graduate student found dioxane in Third Sister Lake west of the Gelman property, it turned up in wells in surrounding Scio Township neighborhoods and businesses. Some levels were thousands of times above what the state deemed safe for drinking water. The same year, the company stopped using dioxane.

Nationwide, only a few major dioxane cleanups are happening; many involve other chemicals. The areas range from North Carolina to California, and in many cases have forced the closure of private and publi wells.

Farsad Fotouhi, Pall's vice president of corporate environmental engineering, has worked on the Ann Arbor cleanup for five years and is the company's expert on all aspects of the cleanup. He believes dioxane will turn out to be a national problem because it is so commonly used and readily latches on to water. Pall, handling one of the larges dioxane removals by sheer mass and water volume, has already destroyed 38,000 pounds of dioxane in groundwater.

"No one looked for it," he said. "Now I get so many calls on a weekly basis. They're seeking advice."

How much is too much?

Safe dioxane drinking water levels were initially set at 3 parts per billion. In the middle 1990s, the state relaxed the standards for all carcinogens in drinking water. Based on a on-in-100,000 cancer risk instead of a one-in-1,000,000 risk, it was changed to 85 ppb. 

"They shut the wells off in places where they found 3 parts per billion before," said Politis. "But now they say it's fine when it's 85."

While it's nearly 30 times what the old standard was, 85 is still a fraction of 1 billion parts.

To get an idea of what that means, imagine Michigan Stadium filled to the brim with golf balls. Toss in a red one. That red golf ball, among the 9,999,999 white ones it would take to fill the stadium, represents one part per billion. 

Several other states have standards for dioxane. While Michigan's standard is 85 parts per billion, Massachisetts' guideline is 50 ppb, Florida has a 5 ppb drinking water tsandar, Maine has a 70 ppb standard, California and North Carolina have  3 and 7 ppb drinking water action levels, respectively. Pall's permit allows discharge of wastewater with an average monthly concentration of 10 ppb. It can have a daily high of 60 ppb as long as the monthly average is 10.

European studies have found some shampoos and detergents have dioxane in levels of 3,400 to 108,400 ppb. Dioxane, which is often used in the manufacturing of such products, is usually removed after processing. But it's left in some products or remains in trace amounts, particularly non-U.S. products.

A 1999 Japanese study founds that about 250 ppb of dioxane per person, per day, is generated and removed to the waste stream through the use of shampoos, detergents, and dishwashing liquids, says Tom Mohr, solvent and toxics cleanup liaison for the Santa Clara Valley Water District in San Jose, Calif., who has studies dioxane and written a paper about it.

Of course, people aren't drinking shampoo.

But Skeean and others agree it's hard to explain the minimal risk to people who learn thei groundwater and wells are contaminated with an unfamiliar chemical.

"It's the old thing where if I back my car into a post and scratch it up, I can live with the damage," Skeean said. "But if somebody else backs into me, I want it fixed."

'Fox watching the henhouse'

Another source of concern is where the discharged water is going. Honey Creek residents have been worried about their wells for years, saying it's only a matter of time dioxane shows up in their water.

Fotouhi disputes that water is seeping from the creek and into aquifers that residential wells draw from. He says Honey Creek is a "gaining" creek - taking in more runoff along the way to the Huron. He adds that discharges are averaging 4 ppb over time, well below the 10 ppb monthly average the state mandates.

The issue of who tests the treated water is a source of irritation, if not anger, for Honey Creek residents. Pall has its own lab and does its own testing. DEQ officials admit that they rarely swoop in to double-check the Pall tests of the treated water.

"It's kind of the fox watching the henhouse," said Roger Rayle, a Scio Township resident and self-appointed Pall watchdog.

Fotouhi, during a tour of the Pall lab and treatment operations, says the company is very careful about the tests. An outside lab, contracted by Pall, takes duplicate samples and sends Pall the results to make sure they match the company's/ And state inspectors can show up anytime to look at the lab and run their own samples, Fotouhi notes.

Sybil Kolon, the DEQ official who oversees the Pall cleanup, said the department does random "split" samples, in which DEQ and Pall compare results to make sure they match up.

"We have not been doing a whole lot lately," she admits, noting the department has limited resources. "Some people might have a problem with that."

"If (Pall) were to falsify data, that would be a criminal matter," said kolon, who works out of DEQ's environmental Response Division, the division ultimately responsible for overseeing the cleanup/ Besides, state law mandates that the company take responsibility for all aspects of the cleanup - the cost, deadlines, and the testing to make sure it's being done correctly.

DEQ checked samples in September 2001. Before that, they did two batches in May and December 2000. The Surface Water Quality Division of DEQ periodically tests the effluent as well, to make sure Pall isn't exceeding the concentrations of dioxane they are permitted to discharge. So far, all samples have matched up.

A 'nightmare' to clean up

If there is one thing all parties appear to agree on, it's the complexity of geology in eastern Scio Township and western Ann Arbor.

It's an isotropic glacial migraine. In layman's terms, that means a convoluted mess of clay, water, sand, gravel, and bedrock is beneath the rolling hills and smattering of lakes west of Ann Arbor. Thousands of years ago, as glaciers rolled through this part of Michigan, they deposited sediment and rock and plowed up the earth, leaving layers of varying depths.

"It's not the simplest," said Mike Gebhard, Washtenaw County environmental sanitarian, who has a degree in geology. "And still, (we're) learning more all the time."

A more ideal geology would have thick clay layers separating aquifers - those layers of gravel and sand porous enough for water to exist -  in a uniform manner. While layers may not be even thicknesses, they are distinct and separate from one another.

But that's not the case here. The aquifers are connected through several small but consequential "interfaces," says Forouhi. Those are areas where water can move from one to another. Two are on Pall's property, and relatively close to the core area of contamination.

Groundwater flows horizontally also, but one aquifer might not flow in the same direction as the one right below it.

"It's difficult to determine exactly where the groundwater is flowing and how connected they are between each other, so it's difficult to determine actually what they solution would be," said Kris Olsson, a watershed ecologist with the Huron River Watershed Council.

To make matters worse, dioxane is slightly heavier than water and it doesn't bind well to soil particles. While that means workers don't have to deal with deep contaminated soil, the chemical's tendency to stick to water means it kept trickling farther and farther away.

"From an engineering point of view, it is the most difficult thing to clean up," Fotouhi said. "Dioxane is a nightmare."

"This was a really bad combination of circumstances," said Pat Ryan, a west-side resident who served on an intergovernmental committee of citizens, township, county and city officials working with the company and state several years ago.

"There water-bearing units communicate with one another. You had a designer compound that doesn't biodegrade, so it's going to go anywhere it wants to go."

Now what?

Fotouhi, a former consultant and technical advisor to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, leaned back in his chair on a recent rainy day and recalled the last five years of press inquiries, endless meetings, long hours, and obstacle after obstacle.

A pot full of very strong black coffee hissed softly in the corner. A pottery mug reads, "What deadline?"

The company is spending about $5 million a year on the cleanup The utility bill alone to run the treatment facility is $800,000 annually. Pall has removed and treated more than a billion gallons of groundwater. Fotouhi knows well what deadline he and his employer face: Shelton's order comes due three years from this July.

Given the history of the problem, that dioxane gets harder to remove the less there is of it, that contamination has traveled deeper than was thought possible, and that the extent of the contamination under the city has yet to be defined, it will be a tight deadline.

"The problem has been figuring out where it is, not so much how to get it out of the ground," said Gebhard, the county geologist. "Drilling is problematic when you get to those depths."

In late February, a well drilled at West Park just two blocks from downtown Ann Arbor created an artesian well, with water spurting from the ground until it was capped. Another drilled in the nearby Miller Park broke the drill at almost 200 feet. While no dioxane was found in the park wells, workers will have to drill more wells to find the leading edge of the plume.

And "they might need two, three, four, maybe five purge wells," DEQ's Kolon said. "And then they're going to have to treat it."

That's the easy part, Fotouhi said. The hard part is dealing with the wasewater. The city had previously refused to let Pall dump into sewers long-term. Piping or trucking water back to Pall would be a logistical nightmare.

And DEQ wants to collect the $5 million in fines now.

"We're not entirely happy with the situation," Kolon sad. "We believe these penalties are legitimate and we're hoping to resolve that."

When - and whether -  the Montgomery Well will ever be used is unclear.

Sue McCorcmick, Ann Arbor's water utilities director, said the well will remain off-line indefinitely. It will be off-line at least until the city assesses the pollution, how it would affect city water customers, and how leaving the well off-line would affect water treatment.

Although the well supplies only a small percentage of the city's water supply, it's crucial to warming river water in winter for more effective treatment. Without warmer water, processing byproducts such as calcium carbonate can't be reused as fertilizer and have to be thrown away.

Even at the extremely low leverls - the well is holding at 2 ppb -  pumping water from it could be a bad idea. If the source of dioxane in the well is from Pall, which all parties agree if probably is, pumping water from it could draw more dioxane to it and further contaminate it.

Farther west, along Honey Creek, residents continue to oppose Pall's request for increased amounts of treated water to be discharged into the creek. When, they wonder, will state officials decide the creek is full enough? And when will the end be truly in sight>

"You have to plan on this cleanup being decades long," said Honey Creek resident Rayle. "They keep finding new dioxane."

Tracy Davis can be reached at or (734) 994-6856.

More coverage

 History of the cleanup, A10

How dioxane is removed, A11

MONDAY: How residents have monitored the cleanup attempt

ONLINE: Archive of Pall stories at


The dioxane plume

The current reach of dioxane-contaminated groundwater extends norteast and is believed headed in the direction of the Huron River. Pall scientists estimate the extent of the plume using tests of more than 100 wells.

Parts per billion:

85-500 ppb 

500-1,000 ppb 

1,000-5,000 ppb

5,000-10,000 ppb 

10,000-20,000 ppb 

Over 20,000 ppb

Source: MDEQ, Pall Life Sciences, Scio Residents for Safe Water

News Graphic Sonia L. Bove

News photos Robert Chase

Workers drill a well in January at the Pall Life Sciences plant on Wagner Road.

How dioxane is removed from groundwater

Pall Life Sciences extracts groundwater from purge wells and pumps it to its treatment facility. The technology involves the use of several chemicals and lowers the concentration of dioxane before wastewater is pumped into a tributary of Honey Creek.

1 Water is pumped from one of the purge wells scattered on Pall's property and the surrounding areas.

2 Pre-treated water is stored in a lined lagoon, the Red Pond.

3 During treatment, sulfuric acid is added to the water, lowering the pH to about that of lemon juice, to make treatment easier. Water is pumped into a machine that exposes it to hydrogen peroxide and 4.9 seconds of ultraviolet light, destroying most of the dioxane.

4 Water goes into the Green Pond and retested.

5 Clean water is pumped into a tributary of Honey Creek, which flows into the Huron River.

Source: Pall Life Science, News staff research by Tracy Davis

News Graphic Sonia L. Bove

Farsad Fotouhi: Vice president of corporate environmental engineering at Pall Life Sciences

News Photos Robert Chase

Environmental chemist Wendy Schultz examines effluent samples at the Pall Life Sciences lab on Wagner Road.