Cleanup Near Dow Chemical Plant Overdue
Monday March 17, 2:20 pm ET
Dioxin Cleanup Near Dow Chemical Plant Remains on Slow Track
MIDLAND, Mich. (AP) -- More than a century after Dow Chemical Co. began dumping dioxins into a river flowing past its mid-Michigan plant, the company and regulators are still debating how to cleanse a swath of waters and wetlands that now reaches 50 miles to Lake Huron.
Dow acknowledges tainting the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers, their floodplains, portions of the city of Midland and Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay with dioxins -- chemical byproducts believed to cause cancer and damage reproductive and immune systems.
But the company says it must finish measuring how much pollution exists -- and where -- before devising a cleanup plan. Government officials are pushing Dow to move faster, as some local residents forge ahead with a lawsuit against the chemical giant.
The problem goes back to the plant's earliest days in the 1890s, when it discharged liquid dioxins into the Tittabawassee during high-water periods.
That practice was halted after World War I. But dioxins from the plant's incinerators were pumped into the atmosphere and settled around the watershed until Dow upgraded its equipment in the 1980s.
State officials have warned people not to eat carp, catfish or white bass caught in the rivers and to limit consumption of other fish.
"We're talking a huge area of contamination here," said Robert McCann, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Dow has spent about $40 million in recent years on studies, sediment sampling and other preliminary work. It removed tainted soil from four "hot spots" in 2007. One had the highest dioxin levels ever recorded in the Great Lakes region, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.
But the company, which also has its world headquarters in Midland, still hasn't agreed with regulators on a comprehensive strategy for repairing the watershed.
Critics accuse Dow of dragging its feet.
"It's unbelievable what they've been able to get away with," said Michelle Hurd Riddick, member of a Saginaw-based environmental group called the Lone Tree Council.
Dow spokesman John Musser insists the company is meeting its responsibilities but has honest disagreements with the government over the extent of the problem and how to fix it.
"Obviously this is a cloud over the city and the community," Musser said. "We'd like to deal with it and move on, but we want to do it right."
The latest setback came in February, when Dow went to court over a DEQ order to change its soil sampling plan for Saginaw Bay. Dow said the revision would add 300 square miles of Lake Huron to the area the company is responsible for. McCann said Dow had misread the order, but the squabble hasn't been resolved.
The previous month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it was giving up on trying to negotiate a separate cleanup deal. Neither side would provide details because of a confidentiality agreement, but EPA said Dow's final offer represented a step backward.
"It can no longer be argued that there isn't a serious dioxin problem here," said Ralph Dollhopf, associate director of EPA's regional Superfund office in Chicago. "There is no question about Dow's culpability. It is past time for this work to be done."
Many local residents agree. A group of landowners along the Tittabawassee sued Dow in 2003, saying the pollution had damaged property values. The Michigan Court of Appeals recently granted the case class-action status, which attorneys say could boost the number of plaintiffs from 170 to about 2,000.
The court last week denied Dow's request to reconsider. Company spokesman Scot Wheeler said Monday the company would appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Kathy and Gary Henry, who initiated the suit, say they're tired of waiting and want the federal government to buy them out.
"I've lived here 23 years and I've had enough," said Kathy Henry, 49, who wears a face mask when mowing her riverfront lawn and keeps her windows shut on windy days. Tests have detected elevated dioxin levels in their yard.
But some in the community believe the threat is overblown and an unnecessary attack on Dow, which employs 3,100 people at its plant. Leonard and Cheryl Heinzman, who live less than a mile downstream from the Henrys, eat homegrown vegetables and local fish without fear of dioxin.
"Unless you ingest it every day for dinner, I don't think it's going to hurt you," Cheryl Heinzman said.
Concerns were first raised in the 1980s. But the government put little pressure on Dow until the state DEQ made the cleanup a condition of renewing the company's hazardous waste operating license in 2003.
That led to contentious talks over what Dow should do. Top state officials, even Gov. Jennifer Granholm, got involved. At one point, Republican legislators supporting Dow tried to kill the state hazardous waste program and slash DEQ Director Steven Chester's pay.
A central issue was the state's policy that cleanup work is needed anywhere dioxin concentrations exceed 90 parts per trillion. The federal threshold is 1,000 parts per trillion. Critics said the Michigan standard was extreme and would designate thousands of Midland homes as hazardous waste sites.
The two sides agreed in 2005 on interim steps, including interior cleaning and yard work in more than 300 homes to reduce dioxin exposure. Dow contractors took over 10,000 soil samples from the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers. When they didn't follow correct procedures, DEQ leveled a $70,000 fine.
"It's like no good deed goes unpunished," Musser complained.
But a Dow environmental engineer, Priscilla Denney, also criticized the contractors and filed a whistle-blower lawsuit last November, saying she had been demoted for speaking out. Dow denied it.
EPA decided last summer things were moving too slowly and stepped up its involvement.
It ordered immediate cleanup of three Tittabawassee hot spots, and later a fourth site near a public park on the Saginaw River with a 1.6 million parts per trillion dioxin reading -- highest ever in the Great Lakes region.
The federal agency's newly aggressive approach created tensions with the DEQ, especially after an internal EPA memo surfaced describing Dow as ducking its responsibilities and the state as letting it happen.
They've now agreed the DEQ will remain Dow's primary government overseer, with advice from federal officials. State and company officials last week discussed a springtime work plan, including more soil sampling along the two rivers.
But when a final cleanup strategy will be agreed on -- much less carried out -- is anyone's guess.
"With a cleanup of this magnitude, there are very few easy answers," McCann said. "And even fewer short cuts."
Source: Associated Press
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