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EPA freezes talks with Dow on Mich. river cleanup
Monday March 9, 4:57 pm ET

New EPA chief puts talks with Dow Chemical Co. on hold over cleanup of dioxin in Mich. rivers

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) -- The new head of the Environmental Protection Agency has put talks with Dow Chemical Co. on hold over how to clean up dioxin contamination along 50 miles of rivers and floodplains in Michigan.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced the delay last week in a letter to environmental activists who have accused Dow of moving too slowly to restore the polluted stretch of Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay watershed.

"My goal is to ensure an expeditious and robust cleanup, and I will take steps to ensure that the dioxin contamination is addressed in a manner that is protective of human health and the environment -- and that the process is open and transparent," Jackson wrote.

She said a team of high-ranking officials from her office would meet shortly with activist groups as well as representatives of Dow and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Negotiations began in the mid-1990s and still have not produced a comprehensive restoration plan. As the Bush administration was winding down in December, the two agencies and the company opened another round of discussions under a new legal framework they said would make things run more smoothly but that critics said would enable Dow to cut a favorable backroom deal.

Jackson said in her letter the EPA's regional office in Chicago would not participate further in those negotiations until her team had reported back after its meetings in Michigan.

The meetings are expected to take place next week, said Michelle Hurd Riddick, a member of the Lone Tree Council, a Saginaw-based group that urged Jackson to take an interest in the case shortly after her appointment as EPA administrator in January.

Hurd Riddick said she was encouraged by Jackson's promise of "meaningful opportunities for public involvement" as the cleanup blueprint takes shape.

"We have a long history of this company going behind closed doors with regulators, and every time they do that the watershed loses and public health loses and the citizens lose," Hurd Riddick said. "We're very hopeful that it will be different this time."

Dow submitted what it described as a "good faith offer" for moving the planning forward in February. EPA's Chicago office was evaluating the offer when the order came from headquarters to halt the discussions, spokesman Mick Hans said Monday.

The company is ready to resume talks any time, spokeswoman Mary Draves said.

"We absolutely do not see this as a setback," she said. "What we are focused on is finding a definitive resolution of the issue."

DEQ spokesman Robert McCann said it was fair for the new administration to take time to learn about the situation.

"Our hope is that this review doesn't slow down the process or require us to put off any plans for this year," he said.

Dow has acknowledged polluting the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers, their floodplains, portions of the city of Midland and Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay with dioxins for much of the 20th century, first by dumping liquid wastes and later by incinerating them.

The chemical giant contends the pollution hasn't harmed people or wildlife but has spent about $40 million on studies, sediment sampling and other preliminary work. In 2007, it removed tainted soil from four highly toxic "hot spots," one with the highest dioxin levels ever recorded in the Great Lakes region.

Source: Associated Press

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