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Open Letter to an architect about drilling for geothermal heating system in our alley

Open Letter to an architect about drilling for geothermal heating system in our alley

The alleyway behind my downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan office has been turned into a mini-Mordor for the last few weeks with deafening drilling and pumping, effusions of grayish, slimy “slurry” and general disruption and using of the place as trash pit and dumping ground. This is an edited and reformatted version of my original e-mail letter to various parties:

Dear Jan Culbertson and Whom It May Concern:

I am a part-time faculty member at a local college.

In conjunction with that task, I maintain a small office at [address elided].

I am presently dissatisfied with the manner in which the planning, approval, and construction phase of this “Alley Drilling” project has been carried out.

In particular, I am having difficulty understanding why one occupant of an adjacent building, [apparently] with neither property rights nor parking spaces in the alley in question, was allowed to hijack the public right of way for private gain.

Were there any public hearings?

Were any announcements published in any paper of record?

How were my rights and interests as a commercial tenant taken into consideration and respected?

I note the following permits on register with the city which may pertain to this project:

Permits, Enforcements, Certificates

Parcel: 09-09-29-127-017


10 Permit(s) found.
Number Type Status Category Applied Issued Expired â
PRW072233 Right of Way ISSUED Right of Way 09/17/2007 09/26/2007 09/25/2008
PS070130 Sign ISSUED Sign 09/28/2007 09/28/2007 03/26/2008
PM071698 Mechanical ISSUED Mechanical 09/18/2007 09/18/2007 03/16/2008
PM071699 Mechanical ISSUED Mechanical 09/18/2007 09/18/2007 03/16/2008
PM071700 Mechanical ISSUED Mechanical 09/18/2007 09/18/2007 03/16/2008
PM071701 Mechanical ISSUED Mechanical 09/18/2007 09/18/2007 03/16/2008
PM071702 Mechanical ISSUED Mechanical 09/18/2007 09/18/2007 03/16/2008
PM071703 Mechanical ISSUED Mechanical 09/18/2007 09/18/2007 03/16/2008
PB071537 Building ISSUED Commercial, Add/Alter 06/20/2007 08/14/2007 02/10/2008
PB071324 Building ISSUED Commercial, Add/Alter 06/06/2007 06/15/2007 12/12/2007

source: City of Ann Arbor


per Matt Naud of the City of Ann Arbor Systems Planning Unit.

The permit which seems to be associated with the past several weeks of drilling activity is PRW072233

I note that this permit, though applied for on September 17, 2007, was apparently not issued until September 26. Yet it is my best recollection that the work proceeded before this date. If so, on what theory or pretext did this occur?

I am given to understand by several city employees that there may be an agreement regarding the use of the alley right-of-way signed on behalf of the city by Mr. West, and that this document may be available from the City Clerk’s office. I would like to know under what theory the city’s right-of-way for the purpose of vehicular traffic or public utilities extends more than 400 feet deep into the earth for the purposes of the private benefit, public relations, and financial advantage of one private entity in an adjacent structure?

I do not regard this project as creating “a special downtown green space”. I regard it as a deafening, prolonged, violent rape of the earth with 400 foot poles filled with potentially toxic liquid for personal gain, public relations advantage and private profit.

On the last point, I was told several times by city officials and representatives of this project that the tubes would be filled with propylene glycol (propane-1,2-diol). I was told that this substance is “completely non-toxic”, “harmless” and “approved by the FDA to use in food… you could eat it.”

First I would point out that throughout the world there have been a number of poisoning incidents due to imported diethylene glycol being mislabeled as propylene glycol. For instance, the New York Times reported on May 19, 2007 that 136 people were killed in a 2006 diethylene glycol poisoning incident involving toothpaste in Costa Rica.

I strongly suggest that the city or another government agency independently test and assure us that the “completely safe” substance in the tubes is actually what it is represented as being (food-grade propylene glycol) and is in fact, safe and non-toxic. Methods of testing are documented in a US FDA publication from the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, Guidance for Industry: Testing of Glycerin for Diethylene Glycol.

21 CFR § 589.1001
says that “Use of propylene glycol in or on cat food causes the feed to be adulterated and in violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act”. Propylene glycol is toxic to cats.

The World Health Organization sets the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of 1,2-propylene glycol acetate for a human being to 0-25 milligrams per kg of body weight. (1)

21 CFR § 184.1666 indicates,

Sec. 184.1666 Propylene glycol.

(a) Propylene glycol (C3H8O2, CAS
Reg. No. 57-55-6) is known as 1,2-propanediol. It does not occur in
nature. Propylene glycol is manufactured by treating propylene with
chlorinated water to form the chlorohydrin which is converted to the
glycol by treatment with sodium carbonate solution. It is also prepared
by heating glyercol with sodium hydroxide.
(b) The ingredient meets the specifications of the Food Chemicals
Codex, 3d Ed. (1981), p. 255, which is incorporated by reference. Copies
may be obtained from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave.
NW., Washington, DC 20418. It is also available for inspection at the
Office of the Federal Register, 800 North Capitol Street, NW., suite
700, Washington, DC 20408.
(c) The ingredient is used as an anticaking agent as defined in
Sec. 170.3(o)(1) of this chapter; antioxidant as defined in
Sec. 170.3(o)(3) of this chapter; dough strengthener as defined in
Sec. 170.3(o)(6) of this chapter; emulsifier as defined in
Sec. 170.3(o)(8) of this chapter; flavor agent as defined in
Sec. 170.3(o)(12) of this chapter; formulation aid as defined in
Sec. 170.3(o)(14) of this chapter; humectant as defined in
Sec. 170.3(o)(16) of this chapter; processing aid as defined in
Sec. 170.3(o)(24) of this chapter; solvent and vehicle as defined in
Sec. 170.3(o)(27) of this chapter; stabilizer and thickener as defined
in Sec. 170.3(o)(28) of this chapter; surface-active agent as defined in
Sec. 170.3(o)(29) of this chapter; and texturizer as defined in
Sec. 170.3(o)(32) of this chapter.
(d) The ingredient is used in foods at levels not to exceed current
good manufacturing practice in accordance with Sec. 184.1(b)(1). Current
good manufacturing practice results in maximum levels, as served, of 5
percent for alcoholic beverages, as defined in Sec. 170.3(n)(2) of this
chapter; 24 percent for confections and frostings as defined in
Sec. 170.3(n)(9) of this chapter; 2.5 percent for frozen dairy products
as defined in Sec. 170.3(n)(20) of this chapter; 97 percent for
seasonings and flavorings as defined in Sec. 170.3(n)(26) of this
chapter; 5 percent for nuts and nut products as defined in
Sec. 170.3(n)(32) of this chapter; and 2.0 percent for all other food
(e) Prior sanctions for this ingredient different from the uses
established in this section do not exist or have been waived.

[47 FR 27812, June 25, 1982]

Where in the federal code is the specific use contemplated by A3C and the City permitted?


Henry Edward Hardy
[email address elided]


Copyright © 2007 Henry Edward Hardy

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4 October, 2007 - Posted by |, Ann Arbor, destruction, environment, food additives, Food and Drug Administration, geothermal, greed, law, Michigan, politics, propylene glycol, regulation, right of way, scanlyze, Wellspring Land Company


  1. The underlaying issue seems to be NIMBY and you’ve found some arguments to support your concerns without an open mind.

    Granted, I’m not sure of proper permits and so forth but pretend your owner is installing a highly explosive, toxic, carcinogen and you would have a basis for arguing with your gas company for fixing a supply line in the alley. But would you raise the same issues?

    Propylene glycol has issues, but then 100% maple syrup, water, or beer for that matter would as well simply because is sufficient quantities it can poison us.

    Comment by urthbuoy | 4 October, 2007 | Reply

  2. Yes, it is precisely a NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) issue. I am not arguing against all geothermal projects everywhere, just this one in the way it has been handled. There has been a significant amount of noise pollution and air pollution associated with this project as well as the large amounts of slurry, some of which ended up in the city’s storm drainage system, for which they apparently did not have a permit and which should not have happened. There are really two related issues, a public interest (the public right of way in the alley) which has been damaged and abused for private gain, and my personal interests which have been injured for the profit of a neighboring business which has behaved very arrogantly in the matter in my opinion.

    Comment by scanlyze | 5 October, 2007 | Reply

  3. Your comments explain the issue to me better than the original letter/blog and I’d agree with you on a number of issues:
    – none of slurry should be entering any storm drains (you description points to mud rotary drilling) and this can lead to some fines – usually the worst are through fisheries. You can’t even get a permit to discharge such material to a storm drain in this area.
    – I would never have considered asking for access to public right-of-way for such usage due to bureaucracy, but I would be hard pressed to consider it a bad thing in this matter. Your “powers that be” likely consider it as a utility. In a previous career, I have drilled in alleys in order to investigate offsite contamination. One could argue that is for “personal gain” of a private property owner as well, but , in the long run, it is for the greater good, and that is likely the parallel thought your planning group has taken.

    There are also a number of points (of flexibility):
    – public right-of-ways are always being used for “gain” by others. Rarely by private individuals though. Most often it is utility companies benefiting from them. Their usage and blockage is nothing new.
    – the architect likely has little to do with the geothermal. I’d be looking for the engineer on that one.
    – propylene glycol is approved for such usage, so it would be pushing on a rope to try and make some arguments that it is a bad thing unless you have access to lab rats and independent studies:-).

    I would suggest you have met resistance to your complaints because you haven’t presented any criteria for a solution other than the project should be canceled and folks punished.

    Comment by urthbuoy | 6 October, 2007 | Reply

  4. As I understand it, the architects are the ones contracting the work for their own offices in this case (

    Propylene glycol is “Generally Recognized as Safe” by the FDA as a human food additive. It isn’t safe for animals such as cats. What I’m advocating is that the stuff being put into the ground be independently tested to make sure it isn’t contaminated with ethylene glycol.

    Comment by scanlyze | 7 October, 2007 | Reply

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