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State issues emergency rules to clean up toxic chemical

Michael Gerstein Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Michigan’s environmental protection department created “emergency rules” Thursday for a toxic chemical, citing concerns about a dangerous chemical plume that has been spreading underneath Ann Arbor and Scio Township for decades.

The state Department of Environmental Quality issued a “finding of emergency” that establishes a lower threshold to initiate a chemical clean-up than rules that were first created in 2002. The emergency goes into effect immediately and will last for six months.

DEQ Director Heidi Grether called it a “precautionary move” prompted by concern that vapors from a chemical called 1,4-Dioxane could intrude into nearby residences, although she said “there is no acute threat at this time.”

The “current cleanup criteria for 1,4-dioxane … are outdated and are not protective of public health,” according to the warning from DEQ’s Remediation and Redevelopment Division, noting the potential for the chemical to enter drinking water or hover in vapor form near residential areas.

The document notes that current levels of the chemical in groundwater and vapor near residential dwellings are unknown, though contamination “is expected to be present beneath many square miles of the city of Ann Arbor” and calls the current cleanup rules established in 2002 “outdated.”

“We are issuing emergency rules to ensure we are protecting Michigan residents relative to 1,4-dioxane contamination in groundwater in Ann Arbor and elsewhere in Michigan,” Grether said in a Thursday statement.

“Our recent testing of shallow groundwater in Ann Arbor confirms the presence of contamination a significant distance from the heart of the plume. While there is no acute threat at this time, issuing these emergency rules is the responsible thing to do as we seek to put public health first and foremost in everything we do.”

Whether the state DEQ cleans up the 1,4-dioxane depends on whether the chemical concentration exceeds the new criteria put forth Thursday, according to Mike Shore, a department spokesman.

Shore could not be immediately reached Thursday night for details about testing for the chemical.

A failure to properly dispose of the material led to groundwater contamination. Dioxane affects the central nervous system, kidney and liver, and is classified as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Suspected carcinogen 1,4-Dioxane was recently detected in shallow groundwater near Ann Arbor’s Waterworks Park and Slauson Middle School on the city’s west side. That’s more than two miles from the former site of Gelman Sciences Inc. and its follower, Pall Life Sciences, where the original contamination is believed to have occurred.

Under terms of a consent agreement, Pall Life Sciences is conducting remediation work under supervision by the DEQ. In the emergency note, the DEQ indicated the extent of contamination “is unknown.”

The Ann Arbor City Council unanimously backed a resolution calling for expedited clean-up of the underground chemical plume that comes from industrial processes at the former Gelman site.

Over a 20-year period starting in 1966, the company made medical filters.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, also this week sent a letter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Director Gina McCarthy that raised questions about the federal agency’s oversight of the situation.

mgerstein@detroitnews.com