Saginaw Forest, the U-M’s eighty-acre nature preserve along Liberty just west of Wagner, is drop-dead beautiful: heavy woods sloping gently down to idyllic Third Sister Lake then rising quickly up again into a pine forest of soaring grandeur. My wife and I have been walking the trails there for years, but last summer we ventured north beyond the pines and entered a different world. There the woods were crossed with paths wide enough for small trucks, each leading to a generator and a covered wellhead. When we tried to go back a week later, we were stopped at the edge of the pines by newly installed wire fences festooned with “No Trespassing” signs.
My questions about the wells and the fence led me to Mark Smith. He explained that the land north of Saginaw Forest is owned by Pall Corp. A global maker of industrial and medical filters, Pall got the property when it bought Gelman Sciences in 1997. Pall closed the Ann Arbor facility in 2013 but is still responsible for the environmental cleanup.
Gelman had made filters and filter membranes on Wagner Rd. since 1963–and for many of those years, disposed of its industrial wastewater in an injection well and unlined lagoons, contaminating groundwater with hundreds of tons of the solvent 1,4-dioxane. Though a court-ordered cleanup has been underway since 1993, to date only a fraction of the chemical has been removed.
Smith lives right next to Saginaw Forest on what was once his wife Linda’s family farm. “They’ve had test wells [north of Saginaw Forest] for years,” he says. The fences went up because Pall was “having problems with vandalism to the wells.”
While fear of dioxane haunts much of region as the plume creeps slowly underground towards the Huron River, Smith lives at what he calls “Ground Zero.” He agrees the contamination is “bad, and they should clean it up.” But also thinks most people vastly overestimate the risk to human health.
In 2015, he backed up that conviction by buying most of the former Gelman property. The tech incubator he opened there is doing so well that he’s expanding it. And this spring, he plans to invite hundreds of other families to join him at Ground Zero when he turns his farm into a new neighborhood.
A soft-spoken Ann Arbor native of fifty-three, Smith never expected to be a developer–or a farmer. “My background is biology. I was planning on being a doctor. My father, sister, sister-in-law, [and] my mother-in-law [were] doctors.” But Linda grew up in a farming family, and “after we had a couple of deaths in the family, [we made] a hard right turn into farming and taking care of family.”
The farm just west of Saginaw Forest has “been in my wife’s family since 1956,” he says. “We have 158 acres. We also have two ponds that were part of a peat moss business that we did.” After the groundwater contamination was discovered, “in 1985, they pulled a sample from the easternmost pond and the Saginaw Forest lake. It showed a hot spot on both of those.
“We were called Liberty Farms at the time. We were top soil, sweet corn, raspberries, strawberries, asparagus. In this area, with the property taxes the way they are, it’s hit or miss whether you make or don’t make a profit. And it had a big negative impact on our business, the press did. People stopped coming to pick the asparagus. Our topsoil business went down.”
Yet, he says, “there was no risk of exposure. We’re talking in the parts per billion.” Dioxane, he adds, is “a very common solvent that is used in all sorts of products. You can find it in toothpaste, most cosmetics, soaps, shampoos.” Though the state recently lowered the permissible limit in drinking water to 7.2 ppb., “the FDA permits it to be in consumer products up to 25 parts per million.”
The Smiths continued to live in their farmhouse and even to drink their well water. “Here at Ground Zero we had to do a lot of testing, and our air sample and our soil sample is zero. We test our own wells at least annually … We’ve never had contamination.” Though he acknowledges the fear that the dioxane plume could eventually reach the city’s water intake at Barton Pond, he asserts, “it’s just not gonna happen. It’s ninety feet below the ground. There’s no path up.
“We’re putting a lot of fear into our neighbors’ minds and hearts, and it may be unfounded,” he continues. “You’d have to drink gallons and gallons and gallons [of water with dioxane in] very high concentration before it’s going to have some sort of impact.”
But the Environmental Protection Agency lists dioxane as a “probable human carcinogen” while the International Agency for Research on Cancer says it’s “possibly carcinogenic” to humans. No wonder some folks stopped buying from Liberty Farms.
Then, “in the early Nineties … Scio Township changed its general development plan,” Smith says. “We were zoned as ‘reserve agriculture,’ but they replaced it with ‘estate residential,’ and it caused our property taxes to jump way up several years in a row. We had to either get really big or lease it out and take nine-to-five jobs.”
They took the jobs. “I love farming,” Smith says with quiet emotion. “It’s hard work but a nice way of life. And no one wants to be the farmer who gives up the family farm.”
But farming asparagus was just his life’s first act. Now Smith farms tech companies.
“In the late Eighties, early Nineties, I got involved in the company called AeroSport that miniaturized a gas analysis system,” Smith explains. Astronaut Jack Lousma, an Ann Arbor native who’d returned here to live, was involved. “When Jack was in Skylab, they had a lot of trouble measuring energy expenditure in astronauts during exercise, and this was seen as a way to do that.” The equipment AeroSport developed has been used in the Space Shuttle and International Space Station.
They bought a building in Parkland Plaza off Jackson Road and “outfitted it for wet labs and UV curing and special-needs manufacturing space.” But the building was bigger than they needed, so “out of necessity, we opened our doors and invited small companies in. And we saw something interesting: when we brought one company in, typically two or more would follow. These are one- or two-person companies with an idea spinning out of the university or locally, and very quickly we filled up that space. So we started looking around for another site.”
They found the former Gelman facility, which “had the wet lab space and other space we needed.” The Michigan Innovation Headquarters–MI-HQ for short–opened with ten companies. It now has close to fifty, filling two of the former Gelman buildings.
“What we do is to plant the seed, so I’m technically still farming,” Smith says. “And what takes root is amazing.”
MI-HQ tenants work in everything from pharmaceuticals to nanotechnology. And Smith says they’re not worried about the dioxane below. “We do regular sampling,” he says. “So far all our sampling has been zero.” And so many companies want in, he says, that they could add another 250,000 square feet and fill it up.
“We want to add some manufacturing capability. We can staff up a manufacturing community that can do contract manufacturing to support our companies and others.” Smith says they’d like to break ground for a new building between the existing ones by midyear. By this fall they hope to have township approval for another new building on the south end of the property.
“Pall has been very supportive,” he says. “The community center is really supportive.”
The “community center” is in a third Gelman building that Smith’s group sold to 2|42 Community Church (see “Making a Megachurch,” December 2017). While it’s owned and run by the church, he explains, “they are adamant that they are a community center first, and if you want to stay for church, that’s great.”
Folks from the tech companies often hang out in the community center’s huge atrium. Swarms of kids race across its artificial turf as Smith and I stroll through. “There’s the cafe in there, and in our next phase hopefully we’ll add a commercial kitchen to support this community–because we are trying to build a community,” he says. “We populate our campus with lots of different technologies, and it becomes a force multiplier, a way to accelerate the business, and that supports our community. Our mission is to grow companies that will put down roots.”
Smith hopes that some of the people in those companies will put down their own roots in his planned subdivision. “We have an approved site plan,” he reports. “We’ve started clearing the site, and we’ll probably start in the spring.” Tentatively named Scioview, the project will have 162 homes.
Most of Scio Township still relies on well water, so its leaders take the dioxane plume very seriously. Unhappy with the pace of the court-ordered cleanup, which is overseen by the MDEQ, they’ve joined Ann Arbor Township and the Sierra Club in requesting a federal Superfund takeover. But because Scioview will get its water and sewer from the city of Ann Arbor, they have no concerns about the safety of its future residents.
“The dioxane is noted and accounted for in the master deed,” says township supervisor Bryce Kelley. “There’s no concern there’s a toxic level there or likely to be there. We are comfortable that it is not going to pose a health threat.”
County water resources commissioner Evan Pratt isn’t worried, either. “I’m feeling very safe about the plume and believe everyone above the plume is safe,” he writes in an email.
Smith does have one safety concern, but it’s not about the subdivision–it’s about Saginaw Forest. The only place for visitors to park is across Liberty. They then have to cross the road on a blind turn on a hill to get to the trailhead.
Working with “the community center and an Eagle Scout project and the U-M,” Smith says, “we’ve created a new trailhead location and a gazebo on the MI-HQ grounds.” By this spring, he hopes visitors will be able to park there and walk safely into the woods. He envisions it as part of a larger trail network: “We’re trying to make an interconnect from my campus to the forest over to our farm and then up to the north where Parkland Plaza is and on up to Jackson Road.”
When it’s all done, the folks who live in his development and work in his office complex will be able to do what Smith does: walk without fear to work through Saginaw Forest.
Phil Simon is president of Ann Arbor Technical Services, the chemistry and environmental science consulting firm that developed the test protocol for 1,4-dioxane. Asked how he’d describe the risk of the chemical contaminating Ann Arbor’s drinking water, he answers, “infinitesimally small.
“We are finders of fact for all parties,” Simon explains. “We work for the city, for the county, for the state, sometimes for the feds. We do testing for the city. We’ve testified in [Judge Don] Shelton’s court and Pat Conlin’s court and been qualified as an expert witness by both sides.”
Yet Simon has no fear of dioxane–he even located his firm on Wagner Rd. after the Gelman plume was discovered. “We are next to Ground Zero,” he says. But “I have no plans on leaving here.” Noting that the city’s water is regularly monitored, he says, “I’m not worried about my health” from dioxane exposure.
He does see one potential risk. “When you get to West Park [the aquifer there is] pretty shallow, and so people could be getting inhalation exposure through [volatilization of groundwater in] their footing drains and sump pumps. We’ve seen some of that. [There,] you need to make sure the protection you use for your footing drains is the same as you would use for radon,” which also volatilizes from groundwater. “If you do the right thing for radon, you are good.”
from Calls & Letters, April 2018
“I didn’t see vandalism,” says Harold Kirchen. “They built those fences because they didn’t like whistleblowers complaining about the shoddy condition of the wells.”
In our March feature “Ground Zero,” Mark Smith had attributed Pall Gelman’s decision to fence off its property near Saginaw Woods to vandalism. Kirchen thinks it was because he was documenting the company’s neglect. “The EPA is strict about wellheads, and these were old and crusted over, and they weren’t really locked,” he says. “I sent those pictures off to the DEQ, and [DEQ official] Dan Hamel talked to them.”
Roger Rayle, chair of the Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane (CARD), cc’d us on an email to Hamel and others. It included screenshots of the plume, including some showing high concentrations at depths shallower than the ninety-foot figure Smith cited.
“The 90 foot depth is roughly the well screen depth of some of our sample wells,” Smith emailed when we asked about the discrepancy. “There are certainly variations due to the highly complex geology and topography of the area … So Roger is correct in saying there are places where 1,4 d is closer to the surface.”