Questions of cover-up

Mar 27, 2002 at 12:00 am

When environmentalists went looking for information about dioxin contamination in Midland last year, they filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Michigan Department of Community Health. The documents they eventually received were shocking — as much for what wasn’t there as for what was: large sections were blacked out by a censor’s pen. What, they wondered, was the danger of informing the public about important health issues?

Geralyn Lasher, spokesperson for the MDCH says that the information was blacked out because the reports turned over to environmentalists were still in draft form. Lasher says the agency was acting responsibly by deleting items that were speculation and opinion, not fact.

By comparing the documents with similar files obtained from the Bay City field office of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, however, it is possible to discern that much of what was blacked out referred to Dow Chemical being the probable source of contamination, and the dangers exposure posed to residents.

“This has been the MO of the Engler administration all these years,” says Tracey Easthope of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor. “They’ve been doing things like this because they can get away with it.”

River’s edge

It was at least a year ago that Terry Miller started hearing rumors of a major environmental problem in the Bay City area.

As head of the Lone Tree Council, a local environmental group, Miller was talking frequently with staff at the area’s Michigan Department of Environmental Quality field office.

“They kept telling me that something big was going on, but that they couldn’t tell me what it was,” recalls Miller, an adjunct professor of history at Saginaw State University and Delta College.

Late last year, after the Michigan Environmental Council, a statewide coalition, filed Freedom of Information Act requests seeking documents related to dioxin contamination in Midland, Miller and his fellow environmentalists finally learned what the rumors were about.

In the spring of 2000, the state discovered dioxin contamination downriver from Midland in the floodplain of the Tittabawassee River. The dioxin — one of the most toxic substances known — was found in dangerously high concentrations by General Motors, which was checking soil at a site targeted for the creation of a wetland as part of a cleanup project. To verify the findings, the state did more testing, and found dioxin concentrations as high as 80 times the state’s residential cleanup level. Between December 2000 and June 2001, 34 samples were analyzed; all but five contained concentrations above the state’s acceptable residential criteria. Because there are homes in the area, the results disturbed DEQ staff.

According to a report released earlier this month by state and federal health officials, a potential source of the contamination is the Dow Chemical plant upstream in Midland. The report refers to a 1986 flood that “overwhelmed” the plant’s containment systems causing “untreated or partially treated chemical wastes” to enter the river.

Dow spokesman Jeff Feerer said no such breach occurred, and that flood waters would have diluted dioxins to concentrations below those found. The source, he said, must be someplace else.

Whatever the source, there’s no doubt DEQ Director Russell Harding delayed testing to verify the scope of the problem.

According to numerous e-mails obtained by the Michigan Environmental Council, several DEQ staff members were urging Harding to move ahead with a second round of testing to determine just how extensive the contamination is. Last fall, they were eager to see testing get under way before winter’s freeze would effectively block any action until spring.

“The deputies of the three departments all agreed we should proceed with Phase II,” an e-mail written Nov. 9 said. But Art Nash, Harding’s assistant, informed staff that the director wanted to “review the documentation” some more. Thanksgiving came and went, the earth froze, and no testing was done. Then environmentalists got hold of the information, and at the end of January unleashed the news.

It wasn’t until this month that letters were sent to 2,500 area landowners — using information that department had been sitting on since at least last summer — to inform them of the problem.

For Miller, the incident shows the Engler administration is placing the financial well-being of the corporations it regulates ahead of the health of citizens it is supposed to protect.

“What he did,” says Miller about Harding, “was reprehensible.”

Ken Silfven, spokesman for the MDEQ, says there was no stonewalling or cover-up. What occurred, he said, was the normal bureaucratic process, which requires deliberation and takes time.

Dioxin dust-up

While Harding was meditating over the floodplain testing issue, another dioxin problem regarding Dow and Midland was raging. The state’s current criteria for allowable residential standards is 90 parts per trillion. The current EPA standard is significantly less stringent at 1 part per billion (or 1,000 parts per trillion). But other factors can come into play, such as the probability of exposure. Which is why the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry sets 50 parts per trillion as the level at which it will investigate for possible health effects.

But last year, Harding floated the idea of changing the way the state calculates dioxin’s risk, which would raise the residential level to 150 parts per trillion.

Numerous experts on his staff lobbied against the change. They pointed out that the EPA, after nearly a decade of study, appears to be on the verge of releasing new criteria that, according to staff, are expected to drastically tighten the federal standards.

“The more I think about it, the more uncomfortable I get,” a DEQ toxicologist wrote to a colleague in November. “Although I agree in principle that the criteria for all hazardous substances should incorporate the same generic exposure assumptions, dioxin is so unique and of such significant public health concern that making it an exception is reasonable.”

Another complained that Harding was making a decision contrary to the “best available information” and the planned changes “are not protective of the public health.”

But members of his staff weren’t the only ones trying to gain Harding’s ear on the issue. In closed-door meetings with Dow, according to records, the company was lobbying to have the standards relaxed.

In February, Harding proposed rule changes that, if approved by the Office of Regulatory Reform and a joint committee of the Legislature, will lead to the relaxing of state standards to 150 parts per trillion.

“There was nothing sneaky or sinister” about the process, assured Silfven, just an honest difference of opinion among colleagues.

Diane Hebert, a Midland environmental activist long involved in the dioxin issue, saw things differently. She noted that many of the sites identified in the town fall between the current 90 parts per trillion standard and the proposed 150 parts per trillion.

“What Harding’s doing,” alleges Hebert, “is getting Dow off the hook.”

Read Curt Guyette's feature story about Dow Chemical Co., and Diane Hebert's struggle to find the truth about the presence of dioxin in Midland.

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]