Dioxane Plume Pollution Then and Now
In a 1988 story headlined “Court may delay toxics clean-up,” The Michigan Daily reported on the “ongoing legal saga” concerning the contamination of local groundwater with 1,4-dioxane. The carcinogenic compound was a by-product of manufacturing at Gelman Sciences, Inc., an Ann Arbor firm that produced industrial filtration products. In the previous year, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) ranked Gelman Sciences as the “second worst toxic polluter” under the Environmental Response Act.
In one of several lawsuits, the State of Michigan sought to order Gelman to clean up the contaminants near its west-of-Ann Arbor facility, reimburse the state for its expenses from a 1986 incident involving the contamination of wells owned by 16 local families, and pay for any damage that the company may have caused to the state's natural resources.
Gelman contested the charges on the basis that the state was unable to prove that the company was “responsible for all the damage in the nearby aquifer.” Assistant Attorney General Edward Reichel responded that Gelman had submitted no studies to prove it was not the sole dioxane polluter in the area.
Gelman then sought court action restraining the DNR from carrying out further toxic waste site identification and cleanup until procedural rules were established.
Thirty years later, the most significant change in the dioxane problem appears to be one of scale. Since University of Michigan graduate student Dan Bicknell first identified the issue during an errant swim in Third Sister Lake in 1984, a plume of dioxane-contaminated water has been spreading through the groundwater beneath Ann Arbor and surrounding townships.
The legal battles also continue.
As reported by The Michigan Daily in a 2017 news story, “Gelman Sciences, Inc. — the center of the dioxane plume controversy — is currently contesting the judicial decision to allow local governments to intervene in the case.” The story notes that the company has settled a number of cases with the State of Michigan in the intervening years, the most recent of which occurred in 2011.
A case of this complexity involving legal, ethical, and public policy decisions is a prime example of cases produced by Michigan Sustainability Cases (MSC) at SEAS.
MSC began with the mandate to create a new kind of teaching case, co-designed by teams of students, faculty, and practitioners, with the goal of contributing solutions to real-world sustainability challenges. To provide a deeper examination of the issues and encourage engagement, MSC created the open-access online platform Gala.
Tackling the dioxane issue, MSC poses a fundamental question:
The Gala site provides in-depth information on the history, conflict, and consequences of dioxane in the aquifer beneath the city of Ann Arbor, as well as a host of other sustainability issues. By enrolling in a case, the public can expand on the knowledge base—while helping to create innovative solutions.
On June 7 – 9, 2018, MSC will present Galaxy, a conference that will convene campus, civic, community, and corporate learners to hone skills that cut across learning design, tech innovation, and social change in the context of environmental sustainability.
The driving force of Galaxy is an intensive, three-day, hands-on Case Innovation Studio. Participants can improve their existing case studies with innovative tools for learning design, media curation and production, and communicating complexity.
They will also engage in dialogue with software developers about tech features that can extend the reach—and depth—of their cases.
Register for Galaxy, "a constellation of events."