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Dioxane Plume

Eddie Zhou

An underground plume of dioxane miles wide is traveling underneath the city of Ann Arbor, and more recently the Huron River. Dioxane, or 1,4 dioxane, is a synthetic chemical which is flammable at high temperatures. It leaches rapidly into the ground, which is a process by which liquids percolate downward and dissolve compounds on the way, and is miscible in water — a chemistry term meaning it dissolves in water evenly making it difficult to separate from the water once it gets in. Dioxane is also a likely carcinogen which means it is linked to causing cancer. Most notably, it is “relatively resistant to biodegradation” in the earth according to the EPA. As of 2019, there is no federal limit (also known as maximum contaminant level, or MCL) for how much dioxane can exist in drinking water.

Groundwater is the water between the spaces in the earth, or the pore spaces in the rocks and soil. “Soil” is defined as a portion of regolith (ground) which can support plant life. It consists of about 50% solid matter (decomposing stuff, rocks, clay, silt, minerals, etc.) and 50% pore space; some of which is air, and some of which is water. When water sits on the surface of the earth it seeps downward into the earth taking up more and more space in the ground until it reaches the water table. That’s where all of the pore spaces in the earth are full of water. Beneath the water table is the phreatic zone. This is where we source water for our wells. Groundwater in the phreatic zone is not still. It travels like water in a lake to outward streams. In the case of groundwater in Ann Arbor the nearest large stream which is fed by groundwater is the Huron River.

Since its introduction to the land surface of Ann Arbor, dioxane has been rapidly leaching into the ground, moving towards the Huron River.

This is how dioxane recently entered Ann Arbor’s city drinking water. Back in the 1960s Gelman Sciences, now called Pall Life Sciences, decided to dump dioxane left over from their manufacturing processes into the land surrounding their site. Their methods of getting rid of it indicates either not understanding the chemical’s harmful potential to the environment, or not caring. It has been claimed that they used a sprinkler system from their site to disperse the chemicals onto their lawns and they also tried dumping it in nearby lagoons — a method of disposing waste products similar to factory farms’ methods for disposing of of cow manure. Manure, however, will return itself to the earth given time. Whereas dioxane, being resistant to biodegradation, will not (at least not for decades, which is too long to wait). Since its introduction to the land surface of Ann Arbor the dioxane has been rapidly leaching into the ground. Once it hit the water table it has been moving towards the Huron River. Pall has been disposing of its dioxane like this from at least 1966 to 1986. Over this course of time the dioxane plume has grown miles wide and has been spreading. Recently, the city found dioxane in the water near Barton Pond — where Ann Arbor sources its drinking water. It’s likely that the levels of dioxane in the water will increase, since the plume is still moving in that direction.

Numerous times Ann Arborites have asked the city government to take action in addressing the dioxane. One way they requested the city do this is by designating the dioxane-polluted area as a superfund site, wherein the MDEQ, MDHHS (Michigan Department of Health and Human Services), and the EPA would intervene and take over cleanup from Pall who are currently being tasked with the cleanup. Since this would turn it into a government effort it would be funded by taxes, and the people would then be financially responsible for cleaning up a corporate mess. In a 2016 town hall the city mostly gave lip service to the people who came to voice concerns about the drinking water in the city. Households in Ann Arbor that previously relied on well water (groundwater in the phreatic zone) had already been forced to switch to city water by this point, but as the plume came closer and closer to the Huron River people grew concerned that even the city water would soon be unsafe. Unfortunately, the state and capitalism do not care about the people’s health and safety. That evening the city told residents that to their knowledge Pall has stopped spraying dioxane into the land, so while the plume is traveling and spreading it is also diluting (though not degrading). The most action governments have taken to acknowledge the crisis happened in 2017 when the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) raised the exposure limit of dioxane from 3 parts per billion (ppb) to 77 ppb, lifting the bar for what qualifies as emergency levels of dioxane in our ecosystems. Once again, the structures which claim to be necessary for our survival have stood complicit during what is almost certainly a public health crisis.

Ann Arborites have asked the city government to designate the dioxane-polluted area as a superfund site, wherein the MDEQ, MDHHS, and EPA would intervene and take over cleanup.

Ypsilanti is downriver of Ann Arbor, meaning the river flows directionally from Ann Arbor towards Ypsilanti. Ypsi, however, does not source its water from the river as Ann Arbor does. Our drinking water comes from Detroit and is sourced from Lake Huron. The Huron River is a few degrees of separation from Lake Huron, as the river is actually a tributary to Lake Erie, but dioxane is a carcinogen from all routes of exposure and is harmful to humans in all amounts. Regardless of whether we’re at risk of drinking it in our water dioxane can still hurt us. It will not take that long for the ecosystems of Ypsi and all areas surrounding Ann Arbor to be hurt by the dioxane plume when we breathe in vapors from our basements above polluted areas, when we eat the herbs and vegetables we grow in our gardens, or when we wade in the Huron River on summer afternoons. This is a danger which affects the way all of Southeast Michigan exists in relationship with nature.

The dioxane plume is one extreme product of a culture which disrespects the earth among many. Since the time this land was forcibly stolen from Indigenous peoples the settler-colonial society built inside it has done little to practice sustainability. We clear-cut, introduce invasive species to the ecosystems, spray pesticides like roundup on farms, burn coal and natural gas, frack, and dump our garbage into landfills. Pall Life Sciences is not uniquely evil, but is a normal product of a capitalist economy on stolen land. Moving into the future we have options for cleaning up the dioxane (stay tuned for an article about phytoremediation!) and for cleaning pollutants out of our ecosystems in general. In choosing to clean the land we should necessarily choose to respect it by growing away from our colonial roots and exploring a future beyond extracting what we want from the earth and beyond capitalism toward a healthier and sustainable future for all of us.


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