For years, a big chemical company has been negotiating
with government officials on cleaning up an area contaminated with dioxin. Environmentalists say Dow Chemical has used its power and influence to drag out the talks. The chemical company has agreed to plan for some kind of clean-up… but it’s still not clear how far that clean-up will go. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Rick Pluta reports:
For years, a big chemical company has been negotiating
with government officials on cleaning up an area contaminated
with dioxin. Environmentalists say Dow Chemical has used its
power and influence to drag out the talks. The chemical company
has agreed to plan for some kind of clean-up… but it’s still
not clear how far that clean-up will go. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Rick Pluta reports:
Dow Chemical is a huge employer in Michigan, it employs almost 60 thousand people, not including outside suppliers. In a state that has lost a lot of manufacturing jobs, a big company like Dow is important. The state of Michigan has been negotiating with Dow for nearly a decade over cleaning up dioxin downstream from the company’s big plant in the central part of the state. Just recently Dow and the state struck a deal on the next phase of coming up with a clean-up plan. But it’s not clear how long it will take to design the plan and it’s not clear exactly how far the plan will go to clean up the contamination.
The people who live in the floodplain of the Titabawassee River, downstream from the Dow Chemical plant in Midland, Michigan, say they’ve waited long enough for a cleanup plan. Almost a decade has passed since dioxin was first discovered in the river sediment.
(sound of river)
At Immerman Park in the town of Freeland, downriver from Dow, signs dot the riverbank. They warn parents to keep their children from playing here, because there’s dioxin in the soil.
(sound of hand-washing)
An earlier agreement with the state led Dow to put handwashing stations up here for children to clean up after playing in the dirt. Mary Whitney lives nearby. She says the sinks and faucets in the hand-washing stations are too high and too complicated for children to use, and they’re located too far from the banks of the river. She doesn’t think the kids are getting the dioxin contamination off their hands let alone off their shoes and clothes. She says it’s typical of how the dioxin question’s being handled in Michigan.
“It’s like, well, let’s do a little bit to show we’re doing something, but let’s not maybe address the whole issue. We’ll do just a little but to keep the peace and to keep everybody from not getting so much up in arms. But I think, they’re trying to do, Dow is, trying to do some things to help. But it’s just putting a little Band-Aid on the whole issue. It’s not fixing the main problem.”
For decades one of the by-products of the chemicals Dow produced was dioxin. It’s believed dioxin has been in the soil around Midland since the early 20th century. The fact that dioxin contaminated the sediment along the river downstream was only discovered within the last decade.
Studies have linked dioxin to health problems, including cancer and damage to the nervous system. The state says dioxin has spread to the environment round the Titabawassee River to the point that it issued warnings to hunters to limit how much wild game they eat from the area. That’s because the state says deer, squirrels and other game might be contaminated with dioxin.
Dow and its supporters say the risks posed by dioxin are being overstated. Dow officials say there’s no evidence that the dioxin levels in the Titabawassee floodplain pose a threat to the public health. Dow researcher Jim Collins says the company has six decades of research on employees who’ve been exposed to high levels of dioxin, and the worst health effect is a mild form of chloracne in some of the company’s employees.
Chloracne is the skin condition that disfigured Ukraine’s president, Victor Yushchenko, after he was poisoned by a large dose of dioxin.
“We’ve studied heart disease, diabetes, immunologic effects, reproductive effects, and cancer. And other than some increased risk of chloracne in these workers, we find no health effects that have been related to dioxin exposures.”
Backers of the company say critics should be careful about calling for penalizing Dow. Janee Valesquez is the the local economic development group “Midland Tomorrow.” She says Dow’s impact on the local economy amounts to almost a billion dollars a year.
“So Dow is absolutely… an anchor for mid-Michigan.”
Businesses and workers don’t want to damage relations with the chemical giant. Jim Ballard is an economist at Michigan State University. He says there is some risk that Dow could abandon Michigan. Texas is the new home of the chemical industry, he says, because energy’s cheap and it doesn’t burden industry with a lot of environmental regulations.
“I think Dow might consider leaving if they felt the business regulatory climate in Michigan was excessively onerous. On the hand, it would be very costly for them to leave. They’ve got a large investment in infrastructure and human capital in the Midland area, and to reverse would be a decision that I’m sure they would not take lightly.”
But critics of how the dioxing clean-up has been handled think the economic concerns should not be more important than the health risks to people who live nearby – people such as Mary Whitney. She and others filed a lawsuit seeking a lifetime of medical tests paid for by Dow. That case is before the state Supreme Court. Whitney says she’s afraid a cleanup plan will get bogged down in talks, or delayed by studies.
“We want them to clean it up. Take responsibility for what they’ve done and clean it up and make it safe for all of us. Now I’m not sure what all that would entail. Surely maybe dredging the river to make it deeper. Shoring up the shores, so it doesn’t flood any longer. And fill in the yards with clean soil. And that’s going to be a big thing to do.”
Many critics of the state’s handling of the dioxin clean-up believe anything less than an extensive clean-up is putting business and jobs ahead of the health of the people in Midland and downstream along the Titabawassee River.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Rick Pluta.