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Delay, denial part of battle over dioxane

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Delay, denial part of battle over dioxane

First well contamination found in 1986.



As with many old industrial and agricultural practices, spraying dioxane over grass and into unlined lagoons turned out to be a bad idea.

Over the course of two decades, dioxane gathered in Gelman Sciences Inc.’s property.  It was collected in wastewater lagoons beginning in 1965. When they filled up by 1976, wastewater was sprayed on Gelman’s extensive lawns for nine more years.

Dioxane began working its way into the ground. With every rain and snowmelt, it sank deeper, trickling slowly through miniscule passages in the I ground, through layers of sand, silt, gravel and rocks.

The first well contamination i was discovered in 1986, two years after a University of Michigan graduate student discovered dioxane in Third Sister Lake. But it would be more than a decade later - the late-1990s -before a full cleanup got under way, as the environmental, municipal and company officials sparred in court over the details of the pollution and the cleanup.

“Really, no cleanup happened over all those years,” said Pall’s vice president of corporate environmental affairs, Farsad Fotouhi. “All the while, dioxane was coming out and expanding with the groundwater."

In mid-1986, Gelman Sciences began paying for bottled water for businesses and agreed to help pay for the extension of city water lines to affected subdivisions, including Westover and Evergreen. Some wells registered dioxane levels as high as 200,000 part per billion. The state recommended dioxane be limited to 3 parts per billion as a safe standard for drinking water.

At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency permitted a deep-injection well on the Gelman property A mile-deep well would be used to dispose of contaminated water being pumped from affected wells. Residents around the area were outraged, fearing the plan would further exacerbate the pollution problem.

By early 1988, the site ranked second on a state list of pollution priorities. Gelman Sciences filed a lawsuit, demanding clear standards on environmental priorities, and then sued their dioxane supplier, Dow Chemical Co., accusing it of failing to test for dioxane’s persistence in the environment

The state attorney general, on behalf of the Department of Natural Resources (then in charge of enforcing environmental law in Michigan) filed suit to force the company to begin cleaning groundwater. A couple of neighborhood groups also filed lawsuits, and by 1992, all that had been accomplished was that dioxane-related court files occupied an increasing amount of shelf space in the clerk of court’s offices.

Dealing with the company and the state “was like trying to talk to the Israelis and the Palestinians at the same time,” said Thomas Hill, an Evergreen resident whose home was connected to city water because his well was contaminated.

Finally, in late 1992, the state and Gelman settled. The company would pay the state more than $1 million in damages and begin a cleanup estimated to cost $4 million. The treated wastewater would be dumped in a tributary of Honey Creek. The creek runs roughly parallel to Wagner Road until it empties into file Huron River, upstream of the city’s water supply intake.

But residents along Honey Creek were outraged. Some had wells within yards of the creek. Why should the wastewater be dumped into a creek that runs so close to residential wells?

After another round of lawsuits, the company agreed in 1995 to dispose of wastewater on its own grounds. It would treat water to acceptable levels, and then pump it back into the ground.

It was an engineering feat that simply wasn’t realistic, Fotouhi said. So it was back to Honey Creek.

At about this time, company owner Charles Gelman began a major public relations campaign. During the course of it, he gained a reputation as being combative and somewhat eccentric. He took out full-page newspaper ads, explaining what the company was doing to clean groundwater. He came to a company meeting dressed as a king, scepter and all. He even named some of the test wells for public officials he saw as his adversaries, Fotouhi said.

But he was trying to protect the company he started in his basement, one that today employs 500 people and is a major player in the fife sciences initiatives in Michigan and nationwide. Yet, for many people in the Ann Arbor area, the name Gelman Sciences still conjures mostly thoughts of environmental controversy, not life-saving technologies.

Gelman obtained hundreds of documents from the DNR through the state Freedom of Information Act and began mailing letters to Honey Creek • residents, warning them of fecal contamination in the creek, caused by failing septic systems ' and runoff. His employees were 1 copying so many documents he had a copying machine moved into DNR offices.

Through his campaign and lawsuits he filed, Gelman was raising some important issues, particularly: How clean is clean enough?

In February 1997, Pall Corp. bought Gelman Sciences Inc. and assumed liability for the cleanup. Pall’s CEO, Eric Krasnoff, told The News it seemed an acceptable risk: Face a cleanup but eliminate a competitor.

Then problems developed with the cleanup in the Evergreen subdivision, off Dexter Road in Ann Arbor’s northeast corner. City officials did not want wastewater dumped into its sewer system. Pall argued the city was using a double standard because it was dumping dioxane-laced leachate from the old city landfill into sewers.

A plan to transport wastewater back to Pall property through an underground pipeline sparked another round of lawsuits. The court ruled that city property did not extend deep into the ground. The city demanded an emergency hearing and threatened to issue a “stop work” order.

Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Donald Shelton denied it and chastised the city, saying it was impeding the cleanup.

Yet another battle ensued in early 1999, when Pall applied to more than double the amount and increase the concentration of wastewater it was discharging. Against the advice of an administrative law judge, DEQ director Russell Harding ruled Pall could discharge 800 gallons per minute and increase its concentration of dioxane to a daily maximum of 60 parts per billion, keeping the monthly average of 10 ppb.

In July 2000, Shelton ordered , Pall to clean groundwater to within state-mandated acceptable levels of 85 ppb in five years. And with that, the cleanup finally seemed to be progressing, if not in the way everyone would like.

But all the while, the dioxane was not getting any easier to get ! a handle on.

“This recent discovery of contamination (in a deep aquifer i under Ann Arbor) was really no surprise to me,” said Pat Ryan, a citizen activist who served on an intergovernmental committee about the cleanup in the mid-1990s. “It was pretty clear the contamination was going somewhere.”

“I’m not trying to minimize the challenge to the company or to the Department of Environmental Quality of getting their arms around this,” she said, “but I do find fault with the long periods of denial and delay.”


Dealing with the company and the state 'was like trying to talk to the Israelis and the Palestinians at the same time' said Thomas Hill, an Evergreen resident whose home was connected to city water because his well was contaminated.