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Dow's Dioxins

Saga of pollution, politics, and struggle over cleanup has nationwide implications

by Cheryl Hogue
August 11, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 32

Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Downstream of Dow's headquarters in Midland, Mich., the state has posted fish consumption advisories due to dioxin contamination.
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Downstream of Dow's headquarters in Midland, Mich., the state has posted fish consumption advisories due to dioxin contamination.


Dow's Dioxins

TWO RIVERS downstream of Dow Chemical's flagship plant in Midland, Mich., are polluted from the chemical maker's past operations. The company and federal and state regulators have long concurred on that fact. They also agree there's cleanup work to be done, at Dow's expense.

From there, they diverge.

According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Environmental Protection Agency, Dow has been dragging its feet on the cleanup. DEQ and EPA both say the pollution in and along the rivers poses risks to human health and the environment.

For its part, Dow says state regulators overstate the risks from the pollution, which is composed of chlorinated furans and dioxins from the company's manufacturing of chlorine and chlorinated compounds in decades past. These toxic chemicals, commonly referred to as dioxins, are linked to cancer and other health issues, such as developmental problems and diabetes.

Dow believes that the contamination downstream of its plant poses no imminent threat to human health or the environment because there is little chance for exposure, John C. Musser, spokesman for Dow's Michigan operations, tells C&EN. Although there are some hot spots, areas with high concentrations of dioxin contamination, they are buried at least a foot deep in the riverbed, or 3 to 10 feet below the bank's surface, he says.

Dow says any cleanup activities must be tailored to specific areas along the river. Cleanup should be targeted to areas where there is a "realistic probability of exposure," Musser says.

In 2003, Dow reached a framework with the state requiring the company to look at dioxin contamination downstream of its plants and manage the pollution to reduce or eliminate exposure where possible. But the agreement has not settled the situation. In fact, there are still several areas of controversy. For example, the company would like EPA to take command of the situation. This move could reduce Dow's costs by reducing the amount of cleanup it has to do. But EPA's position, at least publicly, is that the state is in the lead and will remain so except if it asks for help from the federal agency on specific issues. DEQ has asked the federal agency to step in on occasion, so both agencies are involved in crafting the cleanup, but DEQ retains the primary responsibility. Unlike the state, EPA has powers under the Superfund law that can force swift cleanup of toxic contamination that the federal agency deems to be a threat to human health or the environment.

Meanwhile, the regional community around the Dow plant is deeply divided. A small but vocal group of environmental activists, spearheaded by the local organization the Lone Tree Council, has called for Dow to remove the contamination from the rivers for decades. For the environmentalists, it's a matter of corporate responsibility. "You made a mess. Clean it up," says Michelle Hurd Riddick, a member of the council.

But many in the local governments, business, and communities in and around the two polluted rivers that flow through the cities of Saginaw, Midland, and Bay City side with Dow. They say the state and EPA are pushing the company too hard and too far on the cleanup.

Despite this split, both environmentalists and Dow's backers, along with state officials, want any cleanup the state or EPA requires of Dow to allow the chemical maker to remain solvent and profitable. Dow and its good-paying jobs are dear to Michiganians especially because recent downturns, particularly with Detroit's Big Three automakers, have hit the state's Rust-Belt economy hard. "No one wants to see Dow bankrupted or go out of business," Hurd Riddick says.

Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Hurd Riddick of the Lone Tree Council uses a wash station installed so people can scrub away any tainted dirt they pick up during visits to a park along the Tittabawasee River.
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Hurd Riddick of the Lone Tree Council uses a wash station installed so people can scrub away any tainted dirt they pick up during visits to a park along the Tittabawasee River.

THE ISSUES surrounding the cleanup are complex, ranging from details about river hydrology to arguments over human exposure to and possible health effects from the dioxins. What ultimately happens will depend on which agency—DEQ or EPA—oversees the cleanup and whether Dow will prevail in its stance that dioxins in soils and sediments don't pose a risk. Politics is also playing a role as elected officials in Michigan and Congress are inserting themselves into the controversy. Although the wrangling over the cleanup is a long-standing regional issue, it has ramifications far beyond the two polluted rivers, Dow, or Michigan.

"It's not just about this site," Hurd Riddick says. "It's about Dow's liability and the chemical industry's cleanup liability all over the nation."

So the outcome of the situation in Michigan has implications that could affect cleanup of dioxin pollution all over the U.S.

The situation recently took a political turn, launching it into the national limelight and catching the attention of Congress.

Mary Gade, the head of EPA's Region 5 office in Chicago, which oversees six Great Lakes states, including Michigan, resigned in May. Gade, who had held the post since September 2006, says she was forced to quit by officials in EPA's Washington, D.C., headquarters, and Dow is the reason why (C&EN, May 12, page 9). Congress has two ongoing investigations into her departure. Gade did not return C&EN's calls for comment.

Tensions grew between Dow and Region 5 during Gade's tenure. In the summer of 2007, the regional office ordered Dow to clean up three hot spots of contamination along the Tittabawasee River, saying the company had "taken too long" to address the polluted sites (C&EN, July 9, 2007, page 28). In January, Region 5 announced that it was breaking off talks with Dow on a deal to study and clean up pollution along the rivers. The regional office said the chemical maker was not going far enough to address the contamination (C&EN, Jan. 14, page 17).

Dow was taken by surprise when Region 5 pulled out of the negotiations at the beginning of this year, Musser says. The company contacted officials at EPA's headquarters in an attempt to get the talks started again after the regional office's announcements, he says. But Dow denies trying to get Gade out of the picture.

Hurd Riddick thinks Dow prefers dealing with EPA headquarters over the agency's Chicago office because the company might get a better deal with political appointees in Washington. "Dow would prefer to operate in the political arena and not the regulatory arena," she contends.

Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Dow's Musser points out an area in the Tittabawasee where the company removed contaminated sediments from the riverbed at EPA's direction last year. Dow also scooped out tainted soils from the banks where Musser stands.
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
Dow's Musser points out an area in the Tittabawasee where the company removed contaminated sediments from the riverbed at EPA's direction last year. Dow also scooped out tainted soils from the banks where Musser stands.

MORE THAN two decades ago, Dow was also accused of playing politics with EPA by going to headquarters to override the agency's Chicago office. In 1983, Region 5's then-director, Valdas Adamkus, told a congressional subcommittee that EPA's then-acting administrator, John Hernandez, allowed Dow to edit an agency draft report on pollution from the Dow plant. Adamkus, who is now president of Lithuania, testified that Dow deleted a conclusion that its facility was the major, if not the only, source of pollution in the two rivers.

EPA, which had the lead responsibility over Dow's pollution during the 1970s and '80s, focused on dioxins in the wastewater the chemical plant discharged. Since then, the company has instituted extensive water pollution controls and shut down the facility's flow of pollution into the rivers. Currently, the Midland facility has virtually no water or air release of dioxins, Musser says, due to more than $100 million of investments in environmental improvements.

In the 1980s, EPA concluded that dioxin contamination of river sediments "was not likely to be significant," according to a 2004 report from the Region 5 office. But, the report adds, EPA turned out to be wrong about the pollution in the sediments.

A factor that is driving the calls for cleanup is the longevity of dioxins in the environment. Dioxins sorb to sediments and are not quickly flushed out of the river, as are some other water pollutants. They don't break down easily. Unless physically removed, dioxins can persist in soils and sediments in and around a waterway for decades.

Dow's Midland plant is situated along the Tittabawasee. From the chemical maker's sprawling facility, the river meanders some 22 miles to the city of Saginaw. There, the Tittabawasee joins with another river, the Shiawasee, to form the Saginaw River, which flows 22 miles to Saginaw Bay, which is part of Lake Huron. The Tittabawasee, Saginaw, and Saginaw Bay are all contaminated with dioxins traced back to Dow.

The dioxins in sediments and soils along the river end up in fish and, in some areas of the Tittabawasee's floodplain, game such as turkey and deer. Eating fish and game is the main way people are exposed to the toxic pollution, although regulators say some exposure is from people's contact with contaminated soils and sediment.

In spite of the pollution, the rivers are a big draw for recreation.

"This is a beautiful river," Hurd Riddick says, surveying the Tittabawasee from a local park sporting signs about the state's fish consumption advisory for the river and cautioning visitors to wash tainted dirt off their skin after outings there.

The Tittabawasee is popular among sportsmen casting their lines for walleye in the spring and fall, says Kory Groetsch, toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Community Health. They reel in a catch that the department advises should be eaten in limited quantities. The Tittabawasee also draws anglers looking for a meal of catfish or carp, species that the state recommends no one eat, he says.

Dioxins tainting fish in Tittabawasee "present unacceptable risks to public health ... because surveys have shown that people are either unaware of advisories or do not follow them," according to a 2004 health risk analysis by EPA's Region 5 office. Some anglers even stock their freezers with fish taken from the river. In 1988, researchers found dozens of people fishing the Tittabawasee who cleaned and froze more than 50 lb a year of carp and catfish to eat later, the analysis says.

The state also has a consumption advisory for game found on the Tittabawasee's floodplain between the cities of Midland and Saginaw. For this area, the state recommends that people not eat deer liver or turkey, and limit consumption of deer muscle and squirrels.

Dow, however, says hunting along the river's floodplain can be safe. In fact, Dow sponsors a hunt club, composed mainly of company employees, that has access to the many wooded acres the company owns along the Tittabawasee's floodplain, Musser says. He points out that the state's game consumption advisory is not mandatory and says it doesn't take into consideration the practices of most hunters. For instance, many hunters remove the skin of wild turkeys—the organ in the bird containing the highest level of dioxins—rather than trying to pluck them. And few people eat venison liver, he says. But Hurd Riddick says there is a tradition among new hunters to celebrate the killing of their first deer by eating its liver.

To protect human health and the environment from the risks posed by dioxins, DEQ and EPA say, contaminated soils and sediments need to be cleaned up. The two agencies agree that residential properties with soils contaminated with dioxins get top priority for cleanup. But in the past, the two agencies have struggled with how best to go about the rest of the cleanup, DEQ officials acknowledge. But DEQ spokesman Robert McCann says, "We're on the same page as far as the goal," which is protecting human health.

The state agency and EPA have different priorities, explains DeLores Montgomery, chief of DEQ's Hazardous Waste Section. EPA is focused on hot spots of pollution. DEQ, she says, sees these areas as less likely to lead to human exposure since they are buried below clean sediments. DEQ is particularly concerned about polluted banks along the Tittabawasee that are eroding and carrying the contamination farther downstream, Montgomery says.

The Tittabawasee has a strong tendency to erode its banks in some areas and build banks in others. The river is also what hydrologists call "flashy," meaning it overtops its banks several times each year, depositing sediment along the banks and the floodplains.

WHEN THE RIVER eats into the banks, toxic sediments are reintroduced, carried downstream, and become settled in the channel or are deposited elsewhere along the banks or floodplain. DEQ wants to stop the movement of these unstable, polluted sediments, because they can easily lead to exposure of people, fish, and wildlife to dioxins, Montgomery explains.


"This river system really needs to be worked from upstream to downstream to ensure that the major cleanup work only needs to be done once," Montgomery says.

"Fast should not trump complete," says George W. Bruchmann, chief of DEQ's Waste & Hazardous Materials Division. A methodical plan will ensure cleanup is done correctly the first time and provide better protection for people and wildlife, he says.

The state is taking 8,500 samples along the lower Tittabawassee this summer to help it prioritize where the next cleanup actions should occur, Montgomery says.

Cleanup work has to be planned carefully because it can cause unwanted, unintentional consequences. Montgomery says an alteration in one part of the Tittabawasee—such as shunting part of the river's flow away from a section of the channel so that heavy equipment can scoop out contaminated sediments—may trigger changes downstream. The river may start cutting its banks more rapidly, exposing pockets of once-buried, heavily polluted soils.

As it develops a cleanup plan, DEQ sometimes asks EPA to step in or lend its expertise, Bruchmann says. Although states are the chief overseers of most pollution cleanups, they often call on EPA, which has more resources and staff, to investigate areas that they suspect are heavily contaminated. If the federal agency determines the pollution is an immediate risk to people or the environment, the Superfund law allows EPA to act more quickly than states to get the area cleaned up.

DEQ requested this kind of help from EPA recently. The state agency asked the Region 5 office to test the soils around 11 homes in the city of Saginaw along the Tittabawasee River. DEQ suspected the soil around these residences would have high levels of dioxins because of the frequent flooding that carries contaminated sediments from the Tittabawasee onto land.

The homes make up a community tucked away from the rest of the city down a private gravel road that snakes around a golf course and eventually swings parallel to the Tittabawasee. The tiny neighborhood along tree-lined Riverside Boulevard has the relaxed air of a secluded vacation spot, with houses snuggled close to the banks of the river.

Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
The Coopers live along the Tittabawasee and are among 11 Saginaw homeowners whose land will be cleaned up this summer under an EPA consent order with Dow.
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
The Coopers live along the Tittabawasee and are among 11 Saginaw homeowners whose land will be cleaned up this summer under an EPA consent order with Dow.

FOR THE PAST 43 years, Lloyd and Joy Cooper have lived at the end of this road in a house that sits perhaps 40 feet from the river's waters. Over the years, the Tittabawasee has overtopped its banks many times, and floodwaters have run into the Coopers' home on several occasions, they say. Each time, the couple has cleaned up their home and settled back into the idyllic spot where they espy wild turkey crossing the frozen river in winter and tie up their boat in the summer.

The Coopers love where they live, despite the pollution along the river. They say they are frustrated about how long it's taken to get their yard cleaned up, but they're happy it's finally happening.

In May, EPA announced it would use its Superfund authorities to seek swift cleanup of the soils around the Coopers' home and the 10 neighboring houses. In July, Dow signed an agreement with EPA to remove up to 2 feet of soil from around the homes and replace it with clean fill and to pave dusty Riverside Boulevard, says Jeff Kimble, EPA Region 5's on-scene coordinator for the cleanup of the homes along the street.

EPA's action to force the cleanup does not mean that the agency is taking over the situation. Kimble says DEQ and the Michigan Department of Community Health remain the lead regulators in the Tittabawasee and Saginaw cleanups. "We're going to support the state," Kimble says.

Dow agreed to do the work, but, Musser says, "science isn't driving the decisions." He continues, "We don't think there are risks" from the contaminated dirt the company is removing. The key to cleanup actions, he says, should be stopping exposures to dioxins, not merely scraping away tainted sediments and soils.

Nonetheless, Dow is finding middle ground with the regulatory agencies, according to Musser. "We're in a pretty good place," he says. "There's an air of reasonableness and genuine interest in finding ways to move the process forward that we haven't seen in the last year or so."

For its part, Dow seems more in tune with EPA than with DEQ, especially since Gade's departure. "We seem to be on the same page within the last couple of months," Musser says of EPA.

Dow would like EPA to lead the cleanup effort because the federal agency has more resources and experience in remediating dioxins in rivers than DEQ does, Musser says. Plus, he adds, "we'd rather have one master" than have two agencies the company must answer to.

Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
These anglers planned to take their catch of catfish home for a meal. They were aware that the Michigan Department of Community Health advises people not to consume catfish taken from the river.
Credit: Cheryl Hogue/C&EN
These anglers planned to take their catch of catfish home for a meal. They were aware that the Michigan Department of Community Health advises people not to consume catfish taken from the river.

But if that master is EPA and the federal agency takes the reins in the coming months, Dow could face a less stringent cleanup than if DEQ remains in command or if EPA takes over at a later date.

One reason for wanting EPA to take over now is that the upcoming presidential election will mean a turnover in EPA higher-ups, a change that might result in the federal agency becoming less friendly to industry than it has been during the Bush Administration.

Another reason involves an EPA risk assessment that has been pending for more than 17 years. The outcome of the assessment could affect how much cleanup Dow will end up liable for—and thus the price tag for the remediation. If Dow cuts a deal with EPA before the reassessment is completed, the company could end up with a more relaxed cleanup standard for dioxins.

Since 1991, EPA has been trying to update its risk assessment for dioxins, which dates back to 1984. Over the years, it has produced several drafts that suggest dioxins have a number of health effects other than cancer. They have undergone peer review but none have been finalized. The National Research Council reviewed EPA's most recent draft, which was completed in 2004. In a 2006 report, NRC said the federal agency needed to refine the assessment by explaining more carefully what is and isn't known about the risks from exposure to dioxins (C&EN, July 17, 2006, page 9). An EPA headquarters spokeswoman says the next rewrite of the dioxin reassessment is pending, but the agency is tight-lipped about a timeline for finalizing it.

Dow might benefit from an EPA-led cleanup due to federal-state tension over the amount of dioxin contamination that causes regulators to step in.

EPA relies on an "action level" of 1,000 ppt of dioxins in residential areas on or near polluted sites. An action level is not a standard for judging how clean a soil or sediment should be. Instead, it is a threshold for triggering responses by regulators to prevent exposure to a pollutant.

In contrast to the federal agency, DEQ in 1995 adopted an action level of 90 ppt for residential property. This means the state will study areas with lower levels of pollution, spots EPA would not look at, when determining whether cleanup or other action is needed.

"We view that as being extreme and very overprotective," Musser says of the state's action level. In setting the number, he says, DEQ relied heavily on an EPA draft reassessment of dioxin and "very conservative assumptions," such as that people's skin is in contact with contaminated soil 24 hours a day, he says. "DEQ has a lot invested in its position," Musser muses.

McCann says that despite its criticism of the state's action level, Dow has not provided peer-reviewed scientific studies to suggest a less stringent number. But Musser says the company is working on it, conducting tests and compiling data that Dow thinks will convince the state to establish a site-specific standard for the dioxins in the Tittabawasee and Saginaw Rivers.

MEANWHILE, EPA headquarters in Washington appears to have a growing interest in the cleanup.

In a July 14 letter to Hurd Riddick, the heads of the federal agency's Solid Waste & Emergency Response Office and Office of Enforcement & Compliance Assurance, both based in Washington, hint at the possibility of greater headquarters involvement. The letter calls the polluted rivers downstream of Dow "a nationally significant site." The letter says EPA's "senior leadership" from headquarters and Region 5 plan "to discuss overarching direction, policy issues, and final remedy decisions at this site" with Michigan Lt. Gov. John D. Cherry Jr. (D), DEQ, and Dow. In EPA parlance, "final remedy" refers to a final cleanup plan.

The official word from EPA headquarters is that no change is in the works. A headquarters spokeswoman tells C&EN, "Our involvement here is the same as our involvement with other sites: We have been briefed and expect to continue to get status updates from Region 5. This is a state-led cleanup."

The situation continues to unfold.

Although Dow has essentially eliminated its releases of dioxins, in May it unearthed what DEQ says could have been an ongoing source of the pollutants in the Tittabawasee. The company is redeveloping a former building site on the perimeter of its property into a park. Workers there uncovered debris in the riverbank that turned out to be carbon anodes and cathodes that, decades ago, Dow used by the thousands each month to separate brine into chlorine and caustic soda, Bruchmann says. Musser says the bratwurst-sized electrodes likely were mixed into material used to shore up the banks and help hold back the Tittabawasee's floods.


"Dow's been very, very responsive," swiftly digging up the old electrodes and disposing of them as hazardous waste, Bruchmann says. "That's the kind of cooperation we believe needs to extend to the off-site contamination."

Meanwhile, the political picture is changing, at least for the short term, in EPA's Region 5 office. Last month, EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson appointed Lynn Buhl, who has been the federal agency's deputy assistant administrator for of the Office of Enforcement & Compliance Assurance for the past two years, to captain the Region 5 office (C&EN, July 28, page 41). It's unclear whether Buhl will be a stabilizing force in the Dow dioxin cleanup situation or a lightning rod for more debate. She's no stranger to controversy. Buhl faced harsh criticism from environmentalists in 2003, who claimed she was too friendly to polluters when then-Maryland Gov. Robert L. Erlich (R) tapped her to be the state's secretary of environment. Buhl was the first gubernatorial nominee ever to be rejected by the Maryland Senate.

Michigan and Dow are optimistic they can get cleanup done in the coming years. What's required is cooperation among DEQ, EPA, and Dow, Bruchmann stresses. "If we can't do that, success will be distant if even possible," he says.

"It's going to take a lot of different solutions," DEQ's Montgomery says. Some areas of the riverbanks need to be stabilized so polluted soils and sediments stay in place and well buried. Others places will need removal of the contamination. "It's doable," she says.

"We need to push forward so Dow can move on and keep growing here in Michigan," McCann says.

"Whatever is required of us, we'll do, within reason," Musser says. Dow envisions the two rivers will be cleaned up by 2013, he says, but the company is not in control of the cleanup's pace. "We don't make all the decisions," he says.

Dow continues to negotiate with regulators from its position that contamination in soils, whether in the river or along the banks and floodplains, is not contributing the amount of dioxin in people's bodies.

Hurd Riddick, meanwhile, is fed up with the political intrigue and Dow's stalling. "To date, Dow's been able to dominate the discussion and debate" over cleanup, she says. "They have the money. They have the wherewithal to resist."

Nonetheless, she envisions the Tittabawasee and Saginaw Rivers someday as a place where people can catch fish and eat them without worry, a place where people take their children to enjoy without the specter of dioxin-contaminated dirt.

"Give us back a clean river," she says.

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