Year 2003 is glorious already for Midland residents, thanks to the demise of a last-minute deal between the state Department of Environmental Quality and the community’s hometown industrial polluter, Dow Chemical Co. Midland activist Diane Hebert says the victory shows that community activism works. “There wasn’t a day that went by that we didn’t work on this. And we actually did it,” says Hebert of the large, diverse group that banded together to fight Dow and the DEQ. “We know it’s not the end of the war. But God, it feels good to win.” A proposed “consent order” between the DEQ and Dow would have, among other things, increased allowable levels of toxic, cancer-causing dioxin in Midland and freed Dow from much of its cleanup duties and costs. The order would have hiked allowable dioxin levels in residential soil up to 831 parts per trillion, compared to the state’s current 90 parts per trillion limit. Dioxin contamination from Dow’s Midland plant exists in the city and along a 20-mile stretch of the Tittabawassee River floodplain downstream from Midland. Former DEQ Director Russ Harding was pushing Dow’s proposed deal with explicit orders to get it signed before the clock struck midnight on Republican state rule. Luckily for Midland, public scrutiny (fueled by “Shadow of Dow,” Metro Times, March 27-April 2, 2002), the Environmental Protection Agency and former Attorney General Jennifer Granholm’s office got in the way. The EPA in November commented against the order, and the AG’s office advised DEQ that it was illegal and inappropriate. As negotiations heated up and changes to the original order were made, Granholm’s office began to flex some muscle to oppose the consent order. E-mails from Mike Leffler, assistant attorney general, and Robert Reichel, who works with Leffler, were leaked by someone in DEQ and posted on the Ecology Center Web site (www.ecocenter.org). The E-mails rip the proposal, suggesting DEQ acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” to adopt a “fatally flawed” and fundamentally “illegal” document.
Now that the deal is dead, Midland residents and state environmentalists are holding their breath to see what Steven Chester, the DEQ chief appointed by new Democratic Gov. Granholm, will do with Dow. Environmentalists are hopeful about Chester, who’s enforced environmental laws in Wayne County and for the EPA. David Dempsey of the Michigan Environmental Council says he met Chester as a fellow environmentalist in the ’80s and is impressed with his ethics. “I don’t think we’ll see any secret deals or things like that. I’m confident there will be no waiving of pollution standards to assist Dow,” says Dempsey. Alex Sagady, one of Michigan’s most unforgiving environmentalists, agrees it’s a bright new day. “He’s an ideal choice,” says Sagady of Chester. “I know his work … he’s going to be an excellent director.”Send comments to [email protected]