Additional Thoughts (Dec 5, 2020) – Request for EPA Intervention in Gelman Plume Cleanup

Dec 5, 2020 | City Council

The following was originally published in my Dec 5 2020 Newsletter in the “Additional Thoughts” section.

Note that resolution DC-3 was withdrawn by the sponsors on Monday Dec 7th, the day of the Council Meeting. On Dec 11th, the City sent a letter to the Governor’s Office, asking her to request EPA intervention and federal cleanup of the Gelman Plume.

The most remarkable thing on our agenda this week is probably DC-3, added late on Friday afternoon (Dec 4th). It modifies and delays (to an uncertain date) a request for EPA intervention and federal cleanup of the Gelman Plume.

For anyone who does not know: the Gelman Plume is a significant pollution of 1,4 Dioxine that happened in the 1970s at a location in Scio Township (Wagner Road). It was discovered in 1984 and local advocates have been raising alarms about it for decades. The “plume” refers to how the pollution has spread underground, covering areas of northwest Ann Arbor. A brief summary of the Gelman Plume can be found here:

The work of local advocates (and many more details) can be found here:

Since 1992, the polluters responsible for the Gelman Plume have been been subject to legal oversight regarding cleanup. A growing area of the City has been defined as a “prohibition zone” where the groundwater is deemed unsafe to drink from wells. As state standards (and our ability to detect the contaminants) has changed, the obligation of the polluters has been re-negotiated several times. In 2016, the City, Scio Township Board of Trustees, and Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners were included in this legal process as intervenors, with rights to participate in confidential settlement negotiations.

In the two years I have been on Council, I have participated in hours of closed session meetings regarding legal negotiation with the polluters who caused the Gelman Plume contamination of our groundwater. In the last two years, members of Ann Arbor City Council, the Scio Township Board of Trustees, and the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners have received confidential communications from our attorneys, including hundreds of pages of multiple iterations of settlement agreements, hours of legal counsel, as well as scientific analysis of the terms. It is noteworthy that DC-3 comes from new Council Members who did not participate in this long process.

A request for EPA intervention has been on the Council’s public agenda for over a year. The request was first brought on 10/17/19, then repeatedly postponed and tabled as the negotiations dragged on for many months longer than expected. Finally, that process failed to reach acceptable terms; the resolution requesting EPA intervention was approved by City Council on 11/5/20. The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and Scio Township Trustees participated in this process with us. The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners this week unanimously approved their own resolution requesting EPA intervention and will send their own letter to the Governor without delay. Scio Township Trustees are expected to do the same.

As drafted, the original resolution approved by City Council on 11/5/20 directed the City Administrator to send a letter to Governor Whitmer asking her to seek EPA assistance with the Gelman Plume. That resolution and that letter would not cause anything to happen immediately. Instead, it would set in motion a process that would take months to come to fruition. In the meantime, if the City and other intervening parties could reach a better agreement than the Consent Judgement the intervenors have rejected, we could withdraw our request.

If passed, DC-3 will delay the City’s request for EPA intervention until 30 days after a court decision currently scheduled for January 2021. This resolution is admittedly vague (“early 2021“) because the court decision could potentially extend much further into the future. The polluter has successfully delayed and extended this process of negotiations since 1992; they have a history of successful obstruction and delay to avoid accountability. This resolution invites both indefinite delay and also publicly endorses that delay to the polluter.

The most charitable explanation for DC-3 is that the Council Members do not fully grasp the nuance of all that has happened before and do not grasp the significance of the resolution they have brought. I understand that a couple of my colleagues have attempted to help them understand the comprehensive whole of this issue (no small feat) to no avail. A short legal memo in the last week is their basis for effectively un-doing the cumulative efforts of the Township/City/County these last two years. It’s important that members of the community who care about the Gelman Plume issue reach out to Council and let us know that indefinite delay is not acceptable. Ann Arbor must stand in solidarity with the other governmental intervenors, honor that collaboration, and be clear about our own commitment to holding the polluters accountable.