Toxic farewell 

If you believe the folks at Dow Chemical, the course being taken to deal with dioxin contamination in the company’s hometown of Midland is completely reasonable. Corporate representatives contend that a consent order recently proposed by the state outlines a plan that, after decades of contention, will definitively determine if residents of this central Michigan town are being affected by one of the most toxic chemicals known.

“The most important issue is whether people in the community are being exposed to the dioxin in soils, and if there is any impact on public health,” says Neil Hawkins, environmental, health and safety leader for Dow’s Michigan operations. The proposed consent order created by the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) will do just that, he says.

Environmentalists aren’t buying it. The battle to clean up Midland and areas downstream along the Tittabawasee River has been long and arduous. Under Gov. John Engler’s regime, they have had to fight for information at every step, battling DEQ leadership they say is more concerned with protecting Dow’s bottom line than guarding public health.

Along with the proposed health study, the consent order, which environmentalists say is illegal, also seeks to increase by more than ninefold the amount of dioxin allowed in Midland’s soil. It is, say critics, Engler’s parting gift to Dow before he leaves office in January.

“This [deal] is going to go down, and it is going to go down before Jan. 1, and it is going to screw the people of Midland for a decade,” says Dave Dempsey, public policy director for Michigan Environmental Policy.

Actually, it’s not only Midland. “If Dow is allowed to prevail,” says Dempsey, the standards being proposed for Midland, “will become the de facto cleanup standards for the entire state.”

Although long simmering, the issue took on increased urgency in 1996 when soil tests from 37 sites in Midland found that nearly one-third of the samples contained levels above the state action mark of 90 parts per trillion (ppt). Further tests two years later, intended to be a “surrogate” for the community as a whole, found levels ranging from 66 to 476 ppt.

Struggles over what to do about the problem have been ongoing ever since.

While campaigning for governor in a contaminated area downstream of Midland, Atty. Gen. Jennifer Granholm said, “There is a definite lack of governmental accountability here,” and promised, “When I am governor, my administration will operate differently.”

That promise did not go unnoticed at Dow.

“Frankly, Dow would like to get this done with our administration here; the statements that the attorney general made in this campaign scare ’em to death,” DEQ Director Russell Harding told the publication Chemical Policy Alert in late October. Harding conceded that the state could force Dow to clean contaminated soil to currently required levels, but said company officials think the huge expense of doing so would not be money “well spent.”

The consent order proposes increasing acceptable levels to 831 ppt for Midland.

The state Attorney General’s Office raised objections to the legality of the consent order when it reviewed a draft of the document earlier this year. Environmentalists say the version now up for public comment contains only “window dressing” changes. A spokesman for the attorney general said staff is still reviewing the proposed order and declined to comment further. Jim Sygo, head of the DEQ’s remediation division, says he’s sure “a few” of the legal concerns have been addressed, but stopped short of expressing confidence it would now pass legal muster.

“It is,” says Sygo, “an exceptionally controversial plan.”

Even, apparently, within Sygo’s own agency.

“People within the DEQ are sending me things faster than I can read them,” says Diane Hebert, a Midland activist who has scrutinized the dioxin issue for three decades. “They are just irate.”

Hebert, who has long clamored that the process needs a high degree of public involvement to work, also complains that the public comment period for the consent order is completely inadequate.

“Here we have this consent order that has great public health implication, and we’re given 30 days to comment on something that’s so complicated that even the DEQ’s own technical staff don’t completely understand. What’s going on here isn’t science, it’s political science. They have their priorities all screwed up.”

Curt Guyette is the Metro Times news editor. E-mail

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