No Strings Attached
New Wireless Communication System Proposed For County
By Kate Kellogg
Imagine Washtenaw County's 340,000 residents enveloped in a cloud of wireless connectivity. You would need no land line to surf the Web on your laptop while lounging under a tree in a county park. You could e-mail friends or pay e-bills on your BlackBerry while dining alfresco in Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Saline, Dexter, Chelsea, or Manchester. You could collaborate on a project with colleagues in other cities from your home office, unencumbered by a maze of cables and wires.
These scenarios may become reality in a year or so if a public/private partnership called Wireless Washtenaw materializes on schedule.
The initiative seeks to build a countywide wireless or WiFi network that provides free Internet access via radio waves to all residents and organizations by 2007. County officials have for the past several months been promoting the plan to business leaders, educators, the tech community and private service providers. The cooperation of all those stakeholders is essential for Wireless Washtenaw to get off the ground (so to speak). The project’s goals are ambitious and laudable. “We hope to close the digital divide, especially regarding the rural western part of the county where it has not been feasible for telecommunications vendors to sell their wares,” says Bob Guenzel, county administrator. “In the eastern portion, Wireless Washtenaw would offer residents and businesses another alternative for Internet access.”
Radio waves comprise the free part of wireless. Access points or antennas transmit the radio signals between devices, such as laptops and handheld personal computers, and wired networks and the Internet. Many access points can be combined into a mesh network to provide mobile connectivity anywhere within the coverage area. Access points can be installed on buildings or light poles, or even vehicles, according to the county’s Wireless Washtenaw website. The city of Philadelphia, which is about to deploy a city-wide wireless system, estimates that one employee can install ten units per day.
Some wireless “hot spots”—places where wireless connectivity is available—already exist in the Ann Arbor area. A few, such as the Ann Arbor Public Library’s, are free; others in commercial establishments like cafes may charge for wireless access. As envisioned, Wireless Washtenaw would blanket the county’s 761 square miles with free wireless capability. The initiative actually aims to provide a blend of free and for-fee services. While the basic wireless service would be free, private companies would charge fees for higher bandwidth—faster connections—and security features. David Behen, the county’s director of information technology, says that basic free service—at speeds higher than dial-up—would probably be limited to outdoor settings.
“I don’t foresee the free service going into buildings,” he says. “”But private sector vendors can offer services that would enable people to bring that capability into stores and offices and make it secure—for reasonable fees, we hope.”
The long-term goal of Wireless Washtenaw is to support economic development and improve the quality of life in the county. As other regions across the state and country begin to implement WiFi systems, the county needs to remain technologically competitive to attract new businesses, says Guenzel. “Those companies that are considering locating here or wondering if they should stay, are more likely to check us off as a favorable location if we offer free, wireless access to the Internet,” he says.
While the business appeal of large municipal WiFi networks has not yet been proven in the United States, citywide networks have been successful in other countries, such as Finland, according to an article on msnbc.msn.com. Broadband costs in Europe are considerably lower than in the U.S., Esme Vos, an intellectual property lawyer, says in the article. Just as cities lower tax rates or give incentives to businesses to remain or locate there, she says, wireless broadband access also lowers business costs and therefore attracts business. Just what type of entity Wireless Washtenaw will morph into has yet to be determined. The project’s steering and advisory committees are working on a business plan and governance structure. Each of the county’s 28 jurisdictions will be involved in the planning, according to Guenzel. One thing is certain: the county will not own or operate the network. An authority, consortium, or public corporation may be formed to oversee it, says Behen. Funding also is a big question mark. County officials don’t anticipate the use of any public dollars for operations or maintenance. Philadelphia is borrowing money and soliciting foundation grants and other private funding for early investment costs, estimated at $15 million. Washtenaw might have to do the same to cover up-front costs, says Guenzel. “But that may not be necessary if we can make Wireless Washtenaw attractive enough to the private sector.”
Although the private sector’s role in the project is still unfolding, success clearly depends on a public/private partnership. County officials emphasize that Wireless Washtenaw is not out to compete with private broadband providers. Planners are counting on private companies—Internet service providers and other technology vendors—to come to the table with plans for a sustainable model, Behen says. “The county, in turn, provides anchor tenants, a streamlined process, and public assets that can serve as access points for the network. Telephone poles, water towers, and public buildings—these are assets taxpayers have already paid for.”
So far, the county has received “cautiously cooperative” responses from vendors who could provide much of the hardware and network infrastructure, says Guenzel. “We have to demonstrate that they can trust the government to be fair,” he says. The county already has started some preliminary discussions about partnering with regional market leaders Comcast Corporation and SBC Communications.
Last month, organizers solicited Requests for Information from a number of vendors as a prelude to the Requests for Proposals that go out the end of this month. The county hopes to select partners for WiFi pilot projects by September or October. Those pilots should be up and running by the end of this year, Behen says.
Of course, telecom companies that have laid miles of optical fiber cable and invested millions to build for-profit networks are not universally receptive to the idea of free WiFi. In some parts of the country, companies have actively opposed municipal wireless projects. For example, Time Warner, the cable provider for Minneapolis, has threatened legal action if the city proceeds with its large WiFi network plan. Verizon, protective of its monopoly on DSL connections in Philadelphia, unsuccessfully tried to block the city’s wireless plans. (The state recently passed legislation that gives telecommunications companies the right to block public wireless systems elsewhere in Pennsylvania.)
Comcast has made no decision regarding participation in Wireless Washtenaw, according to Jerome Espy, director of communications for Comcast in Michigan. The cable company, which provides high-speed Internet service for 1.4 million Michigan customers, is in “listening mode,” he says. The company does not plan to respond to the county’s Request for Information from vendors, he adds. For now, Comcast is waiting and watching other similar initiatives in the state, including Oakland County’s.
“We’re participating by listening and watching these projects as they develop,” Espy says. “Our goal is to provide the best service and products available and as many options as possible to our customers.”
Comcast’s services now cover about 80 percent of Washtenaw County, excluding less populated areas in some western townships. While he acknowledges that those remote areas would benefit from a wireless network, Espy also notes the immensity of the investment the county is asking for. “They want us to be the backbone of the entire network,” he says. “Both Washtenaw and Oakland are asking the private sector to provide nearly the entire infrastructure with some support from the counties. Comcast has invested $1 billion in upgrades throughout the state since 1996. That’s the kind of funding it takes to support video and high-speed Internet.” As they wait for private partners to come forward, county officials are closely monitoring proposed legislation that seeks to deregulate the telecommunications industry. Bills in the Michigan House and Senate would limit government involvement in the telecommunications arena. However, neither (yet) specifically prohibits governments from setting up communications systems as long as the governments themselves don’t own and maintain them.
Behen says he’s talked with legislators who are open to compromise on the bills’ language. “I don’t foresee the legislature passing laws to stop networks like Wireless Washtenaw,” he says. “Our local legislators are very supportive of our plans and are actively working to prevent legislation from impeding our progress.”
MuniWireless.com, a website that reports on municipal wireless and broadband projects, notes the irony of Michigan—one of the few states with a liberal broadband policy—proposing restrictive legislation. The Michigan Broadband Development Authority has loaned millions to companies and communities to expand broadband access throughout the state.
Smaller communities across the country are finding private partners for their wireless networks and Michigan municipalities have not yet faced major resistance to public wireless initiatives. Grand Haven, Michigan, on the state’s western coast, claims to be the nation’s first “hot city.” Last year, Grand Haven completed and deployed a city-wide WiFi broadband network that extends 15 miles into Lake Michigan. Ottawa Wireless, a wireless Internet provider, developed and manages the system.
Meanwhile, Washtenaw County is touting the many potential applications wireless has for improvement of county services. “Public safety vehicles could be equipped with laptops that use GIS and GPS technology, providing a tremendous amount of information that isn’t immediately accessible now,” says Behen. “Fire-fighters on their way to a fire could pull up floor plans of the building and determine if any chemicals are in it.” Less dramatic examples include county workers reading water meters and parking meters remotely, resulting in cost savings and increased efficiency of services. Wireless would enhance communications in many other areas, such as education, health care, and land use. The average user would need only a laptop or PDA with wireless capability. Most new models are already designed for wireless connectivity and some come equipped with wireless cards. If not, you can purchase a card for under $100, along with a broadcast unit from most local computer stores, according to Mike Gould, A3 Business Monthly’s tech columnist and “mouse wrangler” for the University of Michigan’s School of Education
The county’s size and topography may present some line-of-sight challenges to the wireless network, as do certain work environments. People who work underground or in older buildings with metal walls may need to install broadcasters to access wireless, Gould says. Security issues also are a concern, he adds. “Most information sent over WiFi is not encoded. If you plug into a LAN [local area network] a black van could pull up outside your house and tap into your e-mail messages.” That’s where the private vendors come into the picture. Internet service providers can sell encoding systems that encrypt and conceal data transmitted via wireless networks.
The promoters of Wireless Washtenaw believe the many advantages of a county-wide network would by far outweigh such problems. Besides closing the digital divide, such a network would spur innovation and build Washtenaw County’s reputation as a tech savvy community, says Behen. “Businesses will realize cost savings, we’ll be able to attract and retain more businesses, and the area’s entire economy will receive a boost.” #####
On-Going Cleanup By Pall Life Sciences A Continuing Controversy
By Kate Kellogg
In July 2000, Washtenaw County Circuit Judge Donald Shelton issued Pall Life Sciences an ultimatum: clean up contaminated groundwater to within state acceptable levels in five years or face multi-million-dollar fines. With the deadline now only a month away, Pall Life Sciences (PLS), a manufacturer of medical filters, is working on environmental mediation 24/7 year-round. PLS, located on Wagner Road, is a wholly owned subsidiary of New York-based Pall Corporation.
Since 1997, the company has been spending $5.5 million per year to clean up 1,4-dioxane pollution from a wastewater disposal system that was discontinued in 1986. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies 1,4-dioxane as a probable human carcinogen. Company officials have little hope of cleaning up the toxic plume that is spreading through an aquifer beneath the city in time to avoid $4-5 million in fines. Other plumes of 1,4-dioxane have spread west and northeast of Pall, contaminating residential drinking water wells. Although PLS did not originate the pollution, it inherited the problem, along with a lawsuit filed by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, from its predecessor Gelman Sciences.
When PLS purchased Gelman in 1997, it assumed Gelman’s legal obligations under a 1992 Consent Judgment between Gelman and the state. PLS is now engaged in one of the largest groundwater purging remediations in the state and one of the biggest 1,4-dioxane clean ups in the country.
The state took PLS to court in 2000 in a dispute regarding the company’s compliance with the consent judgment. Judge Shelton then ordered PLS to clean groundwater to within state acceptable levels within five years. On top of that looming deadline, the company was hit with still another lawsuit from the city of Ann Arbor in 2004. The city is seeking compensation for damages and requesting that PLS provide a substitute water source to replace a city well allegedly contaminated by the toxic plume. The city took the Northwest Supply well (also known as the Montgomery well) off-line when tests showed the well contained trace amounts of 1,4-dioxane.
Many concerned citizens have committed that plume’s dimensions—18 million square feet and growing, three miles long and one mile wide—to memory. Called the Unit E plume, it is the deepest of several contaminated aquifers and is traveling east from Wagner Road toward the Huron River. The plume’s leading edge has passed Maple Road and Veterans Memorial Park. Groundwater in the Unit E plume has concentrations of 1,4-dioxane above the state’s generic residential and commercial I cleanup criteria of 85 parts per billion (ppb). The state has progressively moved up the cleanup criteria from three parts per billion prior to 1995, to the current level, which many believe is dangerously high. “No one has set a safe drinking water standard for 1,4-dioxane,“ says Matthew Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator. “Before the Engler Administration and legislature had changed the state standard, the cancer risk was one in one million. Under the current standard, it’s one in 100,000.“
Another point of contention between environmentalists and PLS is the current treatment system which forms bromate, a hazardous byproduct. (More about that in the interview that follows.) Since 1997, PLS has been extracting contaminated groundwater from 18 wells and piping the water to the company’s treatment facility. The treated groundwater is then discharged into Honey Creek, a tributary of the Huron River. The MDEQ acknowledges that “this remediation has significantly decreased the concentration and mass of 1,4-dioxane contamination in the shallow aquifers.“
However, the state, city, and citizens’ groups believe that PSL needs to take more aggressive steps to remediate the Unit E plume and capture the escaped portion. Among the most recent moves was the court-ordered creation of a prohibition zone that bans groundwater use within the area of the contaminated aquifer. The MDEQ would have Pall compensate well users for the cost of connections to the city water system. In the following interview, Farsad Fotouhi, Pall corporate vice president for environmental engineering, describes measures the company has taken so far and explains Pall’s position on the state’s recommended remedial actions.
How did Gelman’s former manufacturing processes lead to groundwater contamination?
FF: In the 1960s, Gelman used the compound, 1,4-dioxane, as a solvent stabilizer in medical instrument production. The company purchased the chemical from Dow Chemical Company. Since no sanitary sewers were available on site, the state suggested that Gelman discharge water into infiltration lagoons. The state’s idea was to remove the natural barrier between the floor of the ponds and the water table so the water could infiltrate the groundwater. This was a common practice at the time and the state issued Gelman a permit to install a lagoon. Eventually the company needed two more lagoons to hold all the process wastes. When those proved inadequate to contain the wastewater, the state said to spray excess water via a sprinkler irrigation system on the open field near the southern portion of the Gelman property. Later, under the recommendation of the EPA, Gelman dug an injection well a mile down into the bedrock. Gelman continued using these methods of wastewater disposal until 1985.
Why did it stop using the process at that time?
FF: For two reasons: Gelman changed its technology and no longer needed 1,4-dioxane. In addition, Scio Township finally put in a sanitary sewer. Gelman tapped in and shut down the ponds and injection well. But it had been using the former state-permitted discharge methods for 22 years.
When and how was the extensive groundwater contamination discovered?
FF: In the mid-1980s, a University of Michigan graduate student found 1,4-dioxane in Third Sister Lake, near the Gelman property. About that time, dioxane also was found in supply wells nearby. Studies determined that Gelman was the source of the contamination. Michigan’s attorney general ranked Gelman as a “first polluter“ among all polluters in the state. That means Gelman was considered the worst of the worst.
How did Gelman respond to the finding?
FF: Gelman connected private wells in the area to the city water system at its own expense and continuously monitored the wells. The company provided bottled water and showers at local hotels for anyone who was concerned about their water. And they were the first company to do an intensive study of 1,4-dioxane. They hired geologists, engineers, and toxicologists to increase understanding of the nature of dioxane, its effects, and treatment. At that time, no one knew much about detection and clean up of this chemical.
Did those actions satisfy the state?
FF: No, the state’s Department of Natural Resources said Gelman was not acting fast enough although Gelman was actively studying the problem and had taken actions to protect residents from exposure. In 1988, the attorney general, as well as some private residents, filed suit against Gelman. There were lawsuits right and left. Gelman was forced to counter-sue the state on the grounds that the state had never issued criteria for cleaning up the dioxane. The state lost that one but won an appeal to a federal court in Detroit, which lead to a consent judgment. The state was ordered to provide cleanup criteria and Gelman was told to conduct a study of cleanup alternatives and implement a major remediation plan. Gelman thought this was a fair settlement.
Gelman went on to develop a methodology for detecting 1,4-dioxane to one ppb. The EPA still uses that technology today. The company also hired a U-M toxicologist to study the effects of exposure to the chemical. They’ve found trace amounts everywhere-in things from radios to shampoo. While doing these studies, Gelman undertook remedial activities such as pumping contaminated water from Dolph Park, on the opposite side of Wagner Road. An interesting aside to the story is that Gelman eventually sued Dow Chemical for failing to tell them that 1,4-dioxane is not biodegradable. They settled out of court. Dow still sells it, but now under a big logo that says the product is not biodegradable.
What happened when Pall bought Gelman in 1997?
FF: We had the option to buy only the business without the environmental liability. Pall chose to buy the liability and take on the problems. After all, we are an infiltration company; cleanup is our job. Pall immediately began to remediate. Since 1997, we’ve been pumping and treating water 24 hours a day under an active discharge permit. Once the water is treated, it’s discharged into Honey Creek.
[According to MDEQ Project Manager Sybil Kolon, Pall’s discharge permit expired last October but the state Water Bureau allows a year to renew such permits. The bureau will hold a hearing with the company this summer prior to re-issuing the permit.]
The city’s concern is that no one really knows what concentrations of 1,4-dioxane—if any—are safe for human exposure. What steps has Pall taken to reduce dioxane concentrations to the lowest possible levels?
FF: Our monthly treatment average is now four ppb of 1,4-dioxane when the water discharges into Honey Creek. We’re working with toxicologists on a study to determine just how hazardous low levels of the chemical are. The EPA defines 1,4-dioxane as a suspected—but not a known—carcinogen based on studies with rats. So far, even the EPA has not come up with a single number all states must adhere to, although they’ve issued an advisory of three ppb as residential criteria. Using EPA methodology, individual states have derived numbers ranging from three to 85ppb. The state has ordered Pall not to exceed a monthly average of ten ppb at point of discharge. Pall said we can do better than that.
We are currently purging dioxane from different locations within a two-mile radius, piping it back here, and treating the water to the lowest level the technology allows. We analyze the water in-house and report to the state on a monthly basis and we’re subject to state inspections at any time. Since 1997, we’ve cleaned up about 2.5 billion gallons of water.
Pall recently changed its treatment technology. With permission from the MDEQ, you now use ozone, along with hydrogen peroxide, where you were using ultraviolet light. Ozone treatment creates bromate, a regulated compound. Why did Pall switch to a technology that produces yet another hazardous substance?
FF: Yes, the ozone process picks up bromide, a natural compound, in the groundwater and converts it to bromate, a known carcinogen. The EPA’s maximum exposure limit for bromate is ten parts per billion for drinking water. There is no advisory number for water that is discharged into a creek or river because of the dilution factor. The state allows us to discharge up to 50 ppb of bromate. Pall has designed the technology to meet an average of ten parts per billion or better.
The reason we went with ozone treatment is because it uses less energy and 70 percent fewer chemicals than ultraviolet treatment. We had been using the more aggressive UV technology when levels of dioxane in the groundwater were much higher. Today, those levels have dropped tremendously so we went with a less aggressive technology to save on energy costs and reduce the volume of chemicals needed for treatment. We periodically measure the effects of chemical toxicity on fish and microorganisms exposed to our treated water. Since 1997, we’ve failed such tests twice due to chronic toxicity. We hope the use of ozone—a softer technology—will eliminate such failings. With the ozone process, we’ve managed to maintain the monthly average of 4 ppb of dioxane.
The city would prefer treatment to non-detect.
FF: Yet no one says let’s come up with a solution for the entire city or a statewide solution There’s a belief that Pall is the only site in Ann Arbor that has generated 1,4-dioxane. Actually there are three other sites—the city landfill, the Staebler Road landfill, which is closed, and the University of Michigan landfill. The city pumps untreated groundwater from those landfills into the sanitary sewer and lets it discharge into the river, assuming the mass will be diluted. Pall, on the other hand, discharges treated water into Honey Creek at a high cost.
How much has PLS spent so far on remediation?
FF: We’ve spent $5.5 million per year since 1997. That includes many extra measures such as annexation fees to hook up residents with city water. Although we’re gladly paying for the cleanup, it’s a lot of money for a company that is not the responsible party for the contamination.
How do you perceive Pall’s progress in meeting Judge Shelton’s remediation enforcement order and do you think you’ll meet the July, 2005 cleanup deadline?
FF: Five years ago, the state said it wanted Pall to take more aggressive steps with the cleanup. We increased our pumping capacity and are now removing about 1,300 gallons per minute from aquifers. Meanwhile, we had to get state approval for every additional step we took. We went to court with this concern and the judge agreed to allow us to eliminate some of those steps. Under his remediation enforcement order we calculated the mass of aquifer contamination and divided that by five years to arrive at benchmarks. However, no one knew about the Unit E plume, the largest, when we did those calculations.
We are meeting the benchmarks for removing the required amounts of dioxane from the other aquifers but will not meet the July deadline. I think the judge believes we’ve done everything possible including issuing quarterly and monthly reports to the state. It’s not possible to do better than this. We hope to re-evaluate the mass and arrive at some new benchmarks.
Pall has conducted a feasibility study on what the company considers the best way to address the Unit E plume contamination and final remedies. How does Pall’s plan compare to the city’s and state’s remediation proposals?
FF: All proposed remedies are based on the assumption that the Unit E contamination will reach the Huron River in 17-20 years. We propose aggressively removing mass at both the PLS property and in the vicinity of Maple Road. Near the Maple Village shopping center, we would extract groundwater and re-inject the treated water into the plume. We would continue to monitor expansion of the plume. If by the time it reaches the Huron it exceeds the state limit of 2,800 ppb for surface water, Pall would install a treatment facility at a location near the river.
The city’s and state’s plans call for an even more aggressive remedy in the Maple Village area that would involve a hydraulic barrier to limit expansion of the plume. The operation would be huge—half the size of the shopping center—and would affect residential neighborhoods. Such a system would generate millions of gallons of water per week. The plan calls for installing a six-mile-long pipeline to carry away water from the plume’s leading edge. You’d need permits for the pipelines, access from the city, county road commission, MDOT, and residents.
Some time ago our proposal to put a 2000-foot pipeline through private property produced four lawsuits. It would take at least ten years to complete the process the MDEQ has proposed. By that time, the plume would have moved on. For those reasons, Judge Shelton agreed that Pall’s is the most practical solution to date.
How does Pall plan to respond to the city’s lawsuit regarding the contamination of the Northwest Supply Well?
FF: Since it’s an active lawsuit, still in the discovery phase, I reserve the right not to discuss it. I will note one important point: the city shut down the well, which provided only five percent of Ann Arbor’s water, of its own volition. The well’s water was found to contain a very small amount of dioxane—two to four ppb—and there are other unrelated problems associated with it. The city links that dioxane to PLS but we have seen no proof that we are the source of the contamination. ####