Cleanup deal's outcome could affect future initiatives: 'Areas of concern' include Waukegan Harbor, Grand Calumet River near Chicago
Oct 22, 2009 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) SAGINAW, Mich. -- Every spring, Dow Chemical sponsors a fishing tournament "celebrating all things walleye" on the wide, fast-moving river that flows past its sprawling world headquarters.
Signs warn anglers not to eat the fish, which are contaminated with high levels of cancer-causing dioxins the chemical giant dumped into the Tittabawassee River for most of the last century. Yet tournament organizers sell hats featuring the slogan "Dioxins My Ass."
Such conflicting messages are common in this picturesque and economically distressed region, where Dow is a major employer but also responsible for poisoning a river valley that stretches more than 50 miles into Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron.
Now, after three decades of promises by federal and state officials to force Dow to clean up the mess, the Obama administration is stepping in with a new plan intended to scour away decades of contamination that turned this area into one of the nation's most polluted sites.
Late last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Dow announced a deal they contend will finally address dioxin contamination from the company's chemical complex in nearby Midland, a company town about 200 miles northeast of Chicago.
The success -- or failure -- of what happens here could affect dozens of other polluted sites along the Great Lakes. Saginaw Bay is one of 31 "areas of concern" on the U.S. side of the lakes that wash toxic chemicals into the world's largest source of fresh surface water. Sites in the Chicago area include Waukegan Harbor, the Grand Calumet River and the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal.
Under provisions in the federal Superfund law, Dow will be required to evaluate and clean up dioxin-contaminated parks and yards along the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers starting this winter. Dow also agreed to work downstream from its plant to remove or cap dioxin-contaminated sediment, preventing toxic muck from repeatedly churning back into the water and from spreading farther into Saginaw Bay. The goal is to restore the entire watershed by 2018.
"We are on the right track now," said Robert Sussman, senior policy adviser to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. "Once the work begins, we will have the momentum to get this done."
Given the sluggish pace of previous cleanup work, the EPA's inspector general recently concluded the sites would not be restored until 2086. The Obama administration has promised to set aside more money to speed up things and is pushing to restore a tax on polluters to help cover the tab, estimated to reach $4.5 billion.
Cleanup of the region surrounding Dow's plant has dragged through several administrations. Soon after taking office, Jackson dispatched Sussman to meet with company officials and citizen groups and renewed negotiations that had stalled during the waning months of the Bush administration.
"I agree with community members who believe that this contamination is a threat to public health in the communities in the area, to the vibrancy and diversity of the ecosystem, and to economic development in Northeastern Michigan," Jackson wrote in a May letter outlining the agency's agenda. "Addressing the contamination and protecting health and the environment is one of EPA's highest priorities."
Still, questions remain about whether the deal will falter as similar efforts have in the past. The Dow agreement will test President Barack Obama's pledge to follow the latest science in setting environmental policies. Upcoming public hearings will shed light on negotiations that until now have taken place in secret.
Some local residents fear the talks are part of a pattern. Despite years of promises, the rivers remain contaminated and questions linger about how the chemicals are affecting public health.
"It doesn't just affect people along the river like me. It affects the whole area," said Carol Chisholm, who lives a few miles downstream from Dow's plant and works as an electrician at one of the region's automotive factories. "Who would want to move to a place that's so polluted?"
Dioxins, a family of compounds that were manufacturing byproducts of the Vietnam-era herbicide Agent Orange and other chlorinated chemicals, are so toxic they are measured in trillionths of a gram. The most potent, known as 2,3,7,8-TCDD, was responsible for the evacuations of the Love Canal neighborhood in upstate New York and the town of Times Beach, Mo.
In the Saginaw area the contamination has remained a unresolved issue. Dow has fiercely resisted federal and state efforts and publicly insisted the pollution doesn't threaten people or wildlife.
"This cleanup can get done, and a company like Dow can afford it," said Tracey Easthope of the Ecology Center, a Michigan environmental group. "But we are under no illusions that this will be carried out without constant pressure from concerned citizens."
Company records show Dow has known since at least the mid-1960s that dioxins could make people sick or even kill them. Based on independent studies, the EPA says the chemicals can cause cancer and disrupt the immune and reproductive systems, even at very low levels. The agency says there is no safe level of exposure.
Since early 1980s, when the EPA first identified Dow as the major source of dioxins in the Saginaw area, the company has shifted its position several times, first denying responsibility, then claiming the contamination came from forest fires and fireplaces, and later challenging scientific studies about the health dangers.
Critics, including the EPA, have accused Dow of repeatedly delaying action and misleading the public about the dangers of dioxin. The company still insists the contamination does not pose health risks but hailed its deal with the EPA anyway.
"We are committed -- in both our words and our actions -- to moving forward ... to resolve the issue," Dow spokeswoman Mary Draves wrote in an e-mail response to questions.
One small sign of the company's commitment: Dow recently agreed to follow through on a 2004 legal agreement with Michigan officials to pay for more dioxin warnings along the contaminated rivers. The additional signs should be up by spring, in time for the annual walleye tournament on the Tittabawassee.
Dow's agreement with the EPA is a much bigger step. It comes a little over a year after Mary Gade, then the Bush administration's top environmental official in Chicago, was forced out of her job as regional EPA administrator. She told the Tribune it was because she was too tough on Dow.
Alarmed by data showing the region's dioxin problems were worse than thought, Gade had ordered emergency cleanups at three spots near the Dow plant, two public parks and a residential area farther downstream.
At one of those parks, in a low-income Saginaw neighborhood, dioxin levels were as high as 1.6 million parts per trillion, the highest amount ever found in the U.S. High levels also have been found more than four miles out in Saginaw Bay.
Gade's emergency orders prompted Dow to seek a more comprehensive deal with the EPA, but she dropped out of the negotiations shortly before she was ousted, saying the company refused to do enough to protect public health and wildlife.
Dow responded by lobbying the Bush administration behind closed doors to sidestep Gade, according to federal records obtained by the Tribune. The company also took Michigan officials to court seeking to block tests intended to find dioxin hot spots in Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. And Dow stretched out the debate with a company-financed study downplaying the human impact of dioxin pollution.
"There are many positive signs with this new agreement," Gade said this week. "But I still have trouble seeing how resetting the clock is going to benefit citizens or the environment, as opposed to Dow."
Even as Dow pledges to follow through on its deal with the Obama administration, the company and its supporters contend the dioxin study it funded, conducted by University of Michigan researchers, shows there is nothing to worry about.
The study, which concluded dioxin levels in local residents had more to do with their age than whether or not they lived near the contaminated rivers, is frequently cited by people who are reluctant to question one of the region's biggest employers and benefactors.
"Just because you are standing on this stuff, you aren't going to glow or get sick," said Bob Van Deveter, president of the Saginaw County Chamber of Commerce. "But the stigma of dioxin has created a lot of roadblocks for economic development."
EPA scientists who evaluated the Dow-financed study, however, say it is of little value because few of the study participants lived in the most contaminated areas and none were children, who are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals than adults.
For some drawn to living in the thick woods that line the rivers, the agreement between the EPA and Dow is long overdue.
Alice Buchalter and her late husband, Herbert, built a house in 1967 on a river bluff four miles downstream from the Dow plant. They raised five children here and encouraged them to explore the outdoors. Herbert Buchalter, a Saginaw physician, often cut mud-splattered firewood from the flood plains and raced dune buggies and motorcycles with his children along the riverbanks.
When he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2004, at age 70, the family wondered if dioxin exposure might have played a role. Days before he died, tests found he had high levels of the chemicals in his blood. Levels on their property were as high as 17,000 parts per trillion, significantly higher than Michigan's standard of 90 parts per trillion.
"We thought it was a wonderland. Now the only people who go back there are testing for dioxins," Alice Buchalter said. "There is an awful lot of hostility directed toward anybody who brings up this issue, but instead of fighting, why don't we fix this once and for all?"