Much of the Tittabawassee River floodplain has been contaminated by dioxin from a Dow Chemical plant. (Photo courtesy of Michigan DOT)
A recent court ruling found that Dow Chemical Company does not have to pay to monitor the health of people living in a Michigan floodplain contaminated with dioxin. The dioxin is a by-product of the manufacturing process for chemicals made by Dow. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tracy Samilton reports:
A recent court ruling found that Dow Chemical Company does not have
to pay to monitor the health of people living in a Michigan floodplain
contaminated with dioxin. The dioxin is a byproduct of the
manufacturing process for chemicals made by Dow. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Tracy Samilton
Dioxin is implicated in liver problems and cancer. At least twenty-two miles of
the Tittabawassee River floodplain in central Michigan are contaminated
with dioxin from a Dow Chemical plant.
Homeowners said Dow should pay for
ongoing tests to monitor the amount of dioxin in their blood. Now that
the court has ruled against them, floodplain resident Kathy Henry says the
only thing people can do is try to keep more dioxin from getting into their
“I wear a dust mask when I mow, we don’t eat any of
neighbors’ produce that they offer us that’s grown in the floodplain, and after we mow the lawn or we’re working out in gardens or yard, we come in and throw our clothes in the
laundry right away and jump in the shower to wash it off of us.”
Dow Chemical has commissioned a one-time study to compare dioxin levels in
people who live in the floodplain with levels found among people in another
Heavy cleanup crews from the Genesee County Land Bank use chain saws, wood chippers, tractors and brute force to move piles of debris on the lot of an abandoned house on the north side of Flint, Michigan. (Photo by Chris McCarus)
Up until three years ago, rundown homes and abandoned lots were multiplying in the city. With the creation of the Land Bank, some people believe the city's image is beginning to turn around for the better. (Photo by Chris McCarus)
A next door neighbor to the abandoned house visits the cleanup crew. She has had to bear the eyesore and health risk next door for several years. The Land Bank currently has custody of about 2,800 properties like this in and around Flint. (Photo by Chris McCarus)
One community is fighting its problems of abandoned lands and unpaid property taxes. Those problems have led to a decaying inner city and increased suburban sprawl. The new tool the community is using is called a “land bank.” It uses a unique approach to try to fix up properties that otherwise often would be left to deteriorate. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports:
One community is fighting its problems of abandoned lands and unpaid property taxes.
They’ve led to a decaying inner city and increased suburban sprawl. The new tool the
community is using is called a “land bank.” It uses a unique approach to try to fix up
properties that otherwise often would be left to deteriorate. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports:
(sound of work crews operating wood chipper)
Cleanup crews are sending downed branches through a wood chipper on a vacant lot.
They’re also removing tires, used diapers, car seats, sinks, old clothes and dead animal carcasses.
The workers are from the Genesee County Land Bank in Flint, Michigan. They’re trying to
make abandoned property useful again. Dan Kildee is the Genesee County Treasurer and the brains
behind the land bank. He thinks this new approach can recover unpaid property tax money and help
improve the Flint Metro area.
“The community gets to make a judgment on what we think we should do with this land. We get
to take a deep breath.”
Empty lots and rundown homes have been multiplying for a generation. That’s left the city of
Flint in a terrible economic state. But the land bank is beginning to change things.
Until just three years ago, Michigan was like most other states. No one had come up with
a solution. The state would auction off a city’s tax liens. Then conflict between the tax
lien buyer and the property owner could go on for up to seven years. In the meantime,
properties were left to neglect and often vandalized.
Under this new program, the treasurer’s office forecloses on a property and hands it over
to the land bank, which acts as the property manager. The land bank might then demolish
a house; it might throw out the owner and let a tenant buy it; or it might auction it off
to the highest bidder. A private investor can’t just buy a tax lien. He has to buy the
property along with it and take care of it.
The land bank is financed in two main ways: through fees on back taxes and through sales
of the few nicer homes or buildings the land bank acquires that bring in relatively big
profits. Treasurer Dan Kildee says it makes sense to take that revenue to fix up old
properties and sell them to people who deserve them.
“There is no system in the United States that pulls together these tools. Both the
ability to quickly assemble property into single ownership of the county, the tools
to manage it and the financing tools to develop that property.”
The land bank program hopes to change the perception of Flint. As thousands of abandoned
homes, stores and vacant lots become eyesores, people and their money go other places,
usually to build more sprawling suburbs. The perception that people are abandoning the
inner city then speeds up that abandonment. Many people who can afford to leave the city do.
And those who can’t afford to move are left behind.
According to data gathered by the research group Public Sector Consultants, Flint has the
state’s highest unemployment and crime rates and the lowest student test scores.
Art Potter is the land bank’s director. He thinks the downward spiral can be stopped.
When it is, those folks in the central city won’t have to suffer for still living there.
“Even though the City of Flint has lost 70,000 people in the last 30 years, the people who
are still here deserve to have a nice environment to live in. So our immediate goal is to
get control and to clean these properties now.”
Urban planning experts are watching the land bank approach. Michigan State
University’s Rex LaMore says Flint is typical of Midwestern cities whose manufacturing
base has shrunk. Private owners large and small have left unproductive property behind.
As the land bank steps in, LaMore says it’s likely to succeed and become an example that
other municipalities can follow.
“They can begin to maybe envision a city of the 21st century that will be different than
the cities of the 20th century or the 19th century that we see around the United States.
A city that reflects a more livable environment. So its an exciting opportunity. I think
we have the vision; the challenge is can we generate the resources? And the land bank model
does provide some opportunity to do that.”
But the land bank is meeting obstacles. For example, the new mayor of Flint who took over
in July canceled the city’s existing contracts. A conservative businessman, the mayor is
suspicious of the city’s past deals. They included one with the land bank to demolish 57
homes. This has slowed the land bank’s progress. Its officials are disappointed but they’re
still working with the mayor to get the money released.
(sound of kids chatting, then lawn mower starts up)
The weeds grow rampant in a neighborhood with broken up pavement and sometimes
no houses on an entire block. It’s open and in an odd way, peaceful. Like a
century-old farm. It’s as if the land has expelled the people who invaded with their bricks,
steel and concrete.
In the middle of all the vacant lots, Katherine Alymo sees possibilities.
“I’ve bought a number of properties in the auctions from the land bank and also got a side
lot acquisition from them for my house. My driveway wasn’t attached to my house when I
bought it. And it was this huge long process to try to get it from them. But they sold it
to me for a dollar. Finally.”
And since then, she’s hired people to fix the floors, paint walls and mow the lawns.
She’s also finding buyers for her properties who want to invest in the city as she has.
Together, they say they needed some help and the land bank is making that possible.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chris McCarus.
Reporter David Hammond's yard. He has the vague notion that not bagging grass clippings is more environmentally friendly. (Photo by David Hammond)
Most of Hammond's neighbors prefer to bag clippings, leaving a perfectly manicured turf. (Photo by David Hammond)
At one point or another, most of us have had to do yard work. If it was one of your chores as a kid, you probably developed a strong aversion to it, but as some of us get older, get married, and move to the suburbs, something interesting happens. Taking care of the yard becomes important, but is there an environmental impact? As part of an ongoing series, called “Your Choice; Your Planet,” the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Hammond takes a closer look at his own back yard:
At one point or another, most of us have had to do yard work. If it was one of your chores as a kid,
you probably developed a strong aversion to it. But as we get older, get married, and move to the
suburbs, something interesting happens. Taking care of the yard becomes important. But is there
an environmental impact? As part of an ongoing series, called “Your Choice; Your Planet,” the
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Hammond examines his own backyard.
To bag or not to bag? That is the question. Well, at least that’s my question… on most Saturdays
say about 10am.
(lawnmower sound up far away distance)
That’s when the men of my neighborhood head outside for their weekly call to arms. It’s yard day.
And once the first mower starts, like fruit flies to a banana, everyone heads outside to do their
mowing, edging, and weeding. It’s a procession that lasts all weekend.
(lawnmower sound up close distance, up and under)
This is a new neighborhood… only a couple of years old. Everybody has put in new landscaping,
and everybody spends a lot of time taking care of their lawns. Brian Van Netta is one of my
“It’s the showpiece of the house. It’s the first thing that people see when they drive by and it sets the tone for the rest of the house.”
Around here, that means bagging your lawn clippings. You know the routine. Mow a couple of
strips across the yard. Stop the mower. Take the grass bag and dump it into the compost bag.
Put the grass bag back on the mower. Mow a couple more strips then dump again. Then repeat
I think it’s lunacy… a waste of the weekend. Something keeping me from solving really important
issues like: Does my beer taste great or is it less filling? I’ve also have a vague notion that not
bagging is better environmentally, but I can’t back it up with facts. So I decide to investigate.
(lawnmower sound out)
First stop – Wade Martingdale. He’s a neighbor who’s worked in the landscape business. Around
here, his word carries weight. Unfortunately for me, he recommends bagging.
“If you have a real full turf grass, you know, real thick and full, that when you cut your grass, the
grass clippings are so thick that actually strangles out your grass, its doesn’t let the water get to the
roots, the air, and then what water does get to the roots, it won’t dry so it can promote disease.”
He also says bagging makes a yard look better… usually as he’s looking at my yard.
“You can’t really tell from a distance, but you can tell up close. Just like your grass has a lot of
clumps in it…” (pause… laughter)
I was getting worried. If bagging was really the best environmental and the best neighborly thing to
do, I might actually have to start. No sense getting kicked out of poker night on account of some
grass clippings, but as I looked down my street at all the 30-gallon bags waiting to be picked up, I wondered where all that waste was going.
(sound of trucks picking up waste – up and under)
Canton Waste Recycling handles all of the recycling pickups in my town. Each week, they pick up
yard waste from nearly 20,000 homes, and then haul it to a regional processing center. There it’s
turned into compost and sold to landscapers and fertilizer companies. The only caveat is that the
yard waste collected from the neighborhoods can’t have any debris in it. If there are stumps or
rocks or concrete in the compost bags, then an entire truckload can be wasted. When that
happens, it gets sent to the landfill.
(begin fading truck sound)
So assuming that folks in my neighborhood are not sneaking any dead cats into their yard waste…
bagging seems like a decent bet environmentally. Sure, there is energy used to pick up and
process the yard waste, but the program employs a dozen local people. I had to give it thumbs up.
(truck sound out)
But now, my worry had turned to panic. I could see the rest of my summer out in front of me. No
more pool. No more picnics. No more Sea Breezes at high tea. No, what I saw was a sweat-stained, fat guy lugging 30-gallon compost bags to the curb. That was going to be my summer.
Hell, it was going to be the rest of my summers.
My last hope was The Huron River Watershed Council. They’re a local environmental group and
have developed a lawn care tip sheet. As I read through it, I started to feel the ol’ fun quotient
starting to rise. That’s because the tip sheet recommended not bagging your clippings. That is, if
you mulched them well when you cut them. Laura Rubin is the Executive Director.
“By leaving them there, they are sort of leaching those nutrients right back into the soil. So when
you mulch them, and you leave them, they just naturally put those nutrients back into the ground
and that’s what the soil needs.”
Rubin says that those added nutrients would allow me to save money because I wouldn’t have to
buy as much fertilizer. I also wouldn’t have to buy the composting bags. Rubin added that she’s
not against community compost programs. Just that leaving the clippings was a simpler
“Community-wide composting programs are great and if you have a good one, you can’t go wrong.
It’s just changing the waste stream to a different area, but I don’t want to stress that there’s sort of
a ‘good way’ and a ‘bad way.’ If you send it to a composting program, you are still recycling and composting
that up rather than bagging it, and sending it to the landfill is the worst.”
So in the great bagging debate, it seems that both sides can claim the environmental high ground.
As long as I mulch my lawn clippings well, I can continue not bagging in good conscience. And for
the hardy souls who do bag? You’re good too. In fact, next Saturday, as I watch you schlepping
all those bags to the curb, I’ll tip a glass to you.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Hammond.
Many cities create parks to try to incorporate green space into theirurban landscapes. But maintaining them can be expensive and laborintensive. Now, one city has created a unique solution–addingnaturalbeauty while saving money. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tasya Rosenfeld has the story: