The Tittabawassee River has flooded three times already this year. Each time floodwater carries dirt from the bottom of the river all over yards, basements, fields and parks. This sediment is contaminated with dioxin from Dow Chemical’s plant in Midland. Dioxin has been linked to a host of health problems including cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency has known about the river’s dioxin contamination since 1981. The agency says comprehensive clean up will take at least 10 years. But the cleanup has barely begun. Sarah Alvarez looks into why it can take 40 years to clean up a river:
Dow Chemical still has not taken its dioxin pollution out of the Tittabawassee River.
What Dow does have to do is keep dioxin contaminated river sediment off of sidewalks and walkways in some parks along the river.
Christopher Villanova is a contractor for Dow. He’s power washing a dock in Freeland Festival Park.
“We brush ‘em off and clean up all the dirt and we put them all in contaminated buckets and we take them out of here.”
This power washing is what’s called an interim clean up action. Dow has to do these or risk being sued by the EPA. But interim clean up actions don’t get rid of any dioxin in the river. They are only designed to minimize people’s contact with it.
But containing a river is hard to do. This year’s floodwaters have gotten so high they’ve covered playground sets in county parks.
There are people in Midland who think the river will never really get cleaned up. Joe Butters was at the park waiting for some friends.
“Well, I’d like to see them dig that dump all out of there and clean it up. And they haven’t even attempted it yet.”
SA: “Do you think it’s going to happen?”
JB: “No, I don’t think it’ll happen.”
SA: “How come?”
JB: “Because they think it’s ok.”
The clean up process has stopped and started for thirty years, as the federal and state governments keep passing the problem back and forth.
Michelle Hurd Riddick is part of an environmental group called the Lone Tree Council. She gave me a tour of the Tittabawassee River. She says the entire time, Dow has been slowing things down.
“Dow is the reason. They are the reason this river is not cleaned up. There is no other reason. None whatsoever. Dow is the reason this river is not cleaned up. Because they push back.”
There are dozens of court documents, memos, even congressional hearing testimony documenting Dow’s pushback. The company has disputed the toxicity of dioxin and how much dioxin it takes to make people sick. They’ve also pushed back on many of the actions proposed to keep people from coming in contact with dioxin.
Dow did not want to be recorded for this story. But in an email, a spokesperson said Dow was now on board with the EPA’s plan for clean up.
Betsy Southland is with the EPA. She says they have a signed legal agreement that will keep Dow on track. But she says these clean ups don’t move quickly.
:I think it’s the nature of the beast. Everyone would like things to move faster but we wouldn’t want it to move so fast that we did things that were not well thought out.”
The EPA’s agreement does not say what Dow will need to do for the final clean up, or how long it should take. It also doesn’t include the lower Saginaw Bay. Environmentalists like Michelle Hurd-Riddick say this gives Dow too much room to slow things down again.
Meanwhile, the people who live here will be stuck relying on interim clean up actions while they wait for Dow to take the dioxin out of the river.
For the Environment Report, I’m Sarah Alvarez.
On Thursday, Sarah looks at how environmental advocates in New York sped up the cleanup of the Hudson River.