Dioxin Pollution Lingers

(Part One)

  • A park covered in floodwater from the Tittabawasee River. (Photo courtesy of Michelle Hurd Riddick)

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.”

Letter from EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson

Five part Environment Report series on Dow Chemical and dioxin

Health effects of dioxins from the WHO


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.

Wolf Forum & Asian Carp Smuggling

  • Asian carp at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kate Gardiner)

The federal government says gray wolves in the Great Lakes states are no longer endangered, and they can come off the endangered species list. If that happens, the state would be in charge of managing the wolves.

The Department of Natural Resources is holding a forum in Marquette tomorrow. The DNR’s inviting everyone from the farm bureau to conservation and hunting groups. The agency wants these groups to weigh in on the state’s wolf management plan.

Christopher Hoving is with the DNR. He says the plan would allow officials to shoot problem wolves. For example… if a wolf kills a cow or a sheep.

“It’s not something we like to do or want to do, but we can’t have that behavior of killing sheep be spread throughout the population.”

He says under the state plan, Michigan residents can also kill a wolf that’s attacking their livestock or pets.

(music bridge)

This is the Environment Report.

State and federal agencies working to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes recently laid out their plans for 2011.

These agencies are focused mainly on the waterways around Chicago, where the fish could get in from the Mississippi River basin to Lake Michigan.

But there’s another route for Asian carp. They’re riding on trucks… that are bringing live carp from fish farms in the South.

Two fish distributors were issued large fines this winter for bringing live Asian carp into Canada. It’s illegal.

Peter Payette has been covering this story… and Peter, you’ve just gotten back from some of these live fish markets in Toronto. What did you see?

A related story about carp smuggling

More about the new Asian carp plan


Peter: All of these live fish markets were a part of an Asian grocery store and a couple of them had very large sections of the store devoted to fish, and in particular, live fish. I was in one store where they had a catfish that must’ve been 30 pounds. I saw a common carp that size… I saw an eel that was two or three feet long.

RW: And you tried to get people to talk to you, right, and nobody wanted to talk to you?

Peter: There was not a lot of English being spoken in these stores. In a couple of places it did seem like they understood, a manager would come out who understood I was interested in talking about the sale of live fish and they had no interest in talking to me about that.

RW: Okay, so what’s the danger here, we’re talking about live fish on trucks, going to fish markets, and presumably, being eaten. How would these fish get into the Great Lakes?

Peter: So I put that question to Peter Meisenheimer. He’s the Executive Director of the Ontario Commercial Fisheries Association, and his answer to that was, if you have truck drivers cruising around with contraband and they think there’s some danger, they’re about to be inspected or pulled over, what do you think they’ll do? They’ll dump the carp in the nearest waterway. Here’s the scenario he described:

“They come up to the first truck inspection station and the lights are up and they supposed to be inspected, you know? I can see the guy skipping by it, taking the first ramp down, finding the first bridge he can dump these things at, because he’s not going to dump them in a ditch, somebody will find them, right?”

Peter: The thing about these Asian carp is that they’re accustomed to living with very little oxygen. The environments they can live in are fairly stagnant, so I’m told that they can remain alive for a number of hours. I read in one report up to 48 hours out of the water. So these fish distributors are actually bringing carp across that appear dead, but they’re hoping to revive them when they’re over the border.

All right, thank you Peter.

Thank you.

Peter Payette is a frequent contributor to The Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.