It could have been a quintessential success story about a young entrepreneur-scientist starting a hobby in the basement of his home and within 20 years turning it into a multi-million-dollar international business.
And it is that story – of how a University of Michigan graduate student named Charles Gelman in 1958 began working on a process to make micro-porous filters, used to detect air and water pollution, among other applications. He built his Gelman Sciences into one of the leading industries in the Ann Arbor area.
But over time the glowing business narrative instead became a history forever tainted by a chemical called 1,4-dioxane. A probable carcinogen once used in Gelman’s manufacturing process, dioxane polluted soil and groundwater at the company’s Scio Township plant, and it eventually spread into a large plume of underground contamination in northwest Ann Arbor.
Pollution problems at Gelman were first reported in 1968 and 1969, but there was surprisingly little regulatory action and sparse news coverage. Fifteen years later, in 1984, the word “dioxane” first appeared in news coverage. It was suspected in Third Sister Lake near Gelman and confirmed in nearby wells the following year. The cumulative effect of the slow-moving investigation and remediation grew more serious by the week, month, and year. Revelations included the fact that Gelman had sprayed tainted wastewater on its lawns as a way to get rid of it. Overflows and leaks at its two unlined storage lagoons contributed. State regulations were so weak that a judge at one point ruled in favor of Gelman’s contention that it had done nothing wrong. Yet dozens of homeowners were told to stop using their wells and were supplied with bottled water. Negotiations emerged over who would pay for connecting the affected residents to the Ann Arbor water system. In one of the more bizarre developments, Gelman employees went door to door, scheduling times and paying for residents to shower in a local hotel. Gelman and the state sued each other; residents sued Gelman; the legal wrangling was as slow as the progress monitoring and treating the pollution.
Millions of gallons of tainted groundwater have been extracted, treated, and re-injected into the ground. Dozens of test wells have been drilled in an attempt to track the spread of the contamination. The major concern, even still in 2016, is whether the underground plume will eventually migrate into Barton Pond on the Huron River, the major supplier of water for Ann Arbor.
It is a definition of irony: A major water pollution clean-up caused by a company that made filters to detect water pollution. This story of business success intertwined with environmental disaster is laid out in hundreds of Gelman-related articles published in The Ann Arbor News from the early 1960s until the newspaper closed in 2009. (Note: Gelman Sciences was sold to the Pall Corporation in 1997, so most news coverage now calls it the “Pall Corp. clean-up” even though dioxane use was discontinued while Gelman still owned the company. Also, Pall was acquired by the Danaher Corporation in 2015 though the Pall name was retained.)
The library’s completion of the Gelman digitization in early 2016 is a remarkable coincidence, coming only a few months into another major Michigan water contamination case – in Flint – that has focused national and international attention on public water supplies. The articles also provide valuable context as Ann Arbor public officials in early 2016 are making yet another push to find more funding to pay for the continued monitoring and clean-up of the dioxane.
The reader of this collective history is left pondering the degree to which the environmental damage and tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs could have been reduced with more aggressive action when the pollution was first discovered. Many questions remain regarding the culpability of the company and why it wasn’t monitored more aggressively by local, state, and national agencies tasked with guarding public health and the environment.
Reading the reporting with the benefit of hindsight frequently proves maddening: How could society care so little about toxic waste being dumped directly into the environment? It shows that public opinion and regulations have changed considerably over the decades.
Despite the frustrating parts of the history, there are also positive, even inspirational, elements. In the category of Individuals Can Make a Difference, here are two citizens who deserve applause:
The dioxane pollution was first reported in 1984 by Daniel Bicknell, a graduate student in the U-M Department of Environmental and Industrial Health and a candidate for Washtenaw County Drain Commission. He took water samples at Third Sister Lake, just east of the Gelman complex, that were tested at the U-M Institute of Science and Technology. His results were met with skepticism by a water quality specialist for the state Department of Natural Resources. “I’m inclined to believe Bicknell’s data isn’t worth a toot. It’s extremely suspect,” the state regulator said. Bicknell persevered, asking for a county grant to study the issue and convincing area residents to petition for water testing. Those results a year later came back positive. Sixteen months after Bicknell’s discovery, the same DNR official had changed his tune, worrying that the initial dioxane might be from just the edge of a plume and greater pollution might be found in other areas, noting, “It’s extremely important we find out.” Bicknell had thought so a year and a half earlier. Bicknell went on to a career with the Environmental Protection Agency, but came full-circle in 2015, returning to consult with local officials on the continuing Pall pollution clean-up.
Roger Rayle is another citizen who has performed admirable public service on this issue for the last 30 years or so. His name is regularly sprinkled throughout the news stories beginning in the mid-1990’s. He is the co-founder and leader of Scio Residents for Safe Water, a watchdog group that has relentlessly monitored Gelman and the public officials in charge of the clean-up. Since the group’s inception in 1995, Rayle has attended countless meetings to gather data, document regulations, evaluate compliance, update maps, and urge more effective and timely solutions. Rayle, also a member of the Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane (CARD), told The Ann magazine in its March 2016 edition that his advocacy started after he went to a community meeting about the Gelman pollution and was shocked by what he heard. “I imagine I probably felt like a lot of people who are in Flint do. How could this happen? Why isn’t somebody in charge of this? Why aren’t they solving the problem?” Thirty years later, Rayle is still offering his knowledge as part of the solution.
Additional information: The Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane (CARD) site has maps of the dioxane plume and other recent information. AADL carries "Various reports on the dioxane pollution", by Gelman Sciences, Inc., in the 3rd floor Reference area, which includes documents prior to 2008. The remaining documents are at the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) Gelman Sciences, Inc. Site of Contamination Page.
DEQ proposes tougher cleanup standard to protect residents from dioxane (MLive, March 15, 2016)
Lynn Monson is a freelance journalist from Dexter. He was an assistant metro editor at The Ann Arbor News from 1995 until that iteration of the newspaper was closed in 2009.