Issue Date: June 1, 2009
EPA Intervenes In Dioxin Cleanup
Citing "a history of delay," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson has announced plans to set a firm timetable for cleaning up dioxin-contaminated waterways downstream of Dow Chemical's Midland, Mich., plant. Jackson's direct intervention in the cleanup of a contaminated area is a rare but not unprecedented move by an EPA chief.
Chlorinated dioxins and furans contaminating the Tittabawasee and Saginaw Rivers and Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay came from operations that occurred at the Dow facility decades ago. The substances are linked to cancer and other health issues, such as developmental problems and diabetes.
EPA will unveil a schedule for the cleanup at a public meeting in Michigan on June 17. In addition, the agency is negotiating an agreement with Dow for the company to check the waterways for dioxin contamination and identify ways to clean it up.
The agency intends to impose enforceable cleanup requirements on Dow "backed up by a range of penalties and sanctions" and few opportunities for appeal, Jackson wrote in a letter sent last week to Michigan community groups that have sought a faster cleanup.
She pledged that the cleanup would continue should Dow balk at EPA's requirements. "We," Jackson wrote, "will undertake the work ourselves at Dow's expense if there is continued noncompliance with EPA directives."
In response, Dow spokeswoman Mary Draves tells C&EN, "We want to move things forward" on the dioxin cleanup. About Jackson's threat for EPA to take over the cleanup, Draves says, "We're preparing to accelerate the resolution to the issue."
Meanwhile, the Lone Tree Council and the Ecology Center, two Michigan environmental groups that have for years pushed for cleanup of the waterways, say they are "cautiously optimistic" about Jackson's announcement.
In her statement, Jackson also divided oversight responsibility between EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which had been the lead agency overseeing the cleanup. Now, DEQ will focus on areas near the Dow plant, and EPA will have responsibility downstream of the facility.
DEQ endorses the split in responsibilities in part because it will speed the creation of a long-term cleanup plan, says state agency spokesman Robert McCann.
Dow has already cleaned up several pollution hot spots along the two rivers. But the company has disagreed with DEQ and EPA over the degree of cleanup needed. Dow has said the remaining contamination is buried deep in the waterways' sediments or banks and poses little risk to human health (C&EN, Aug. 11, 2008, page 15).
Jackson sees things differently. "I agree with community members who believe that this contamination is a threat to public health" as well as to ecosystems and economic development in northeastern Michigan, she said in her letter. Decisions about the type and stringency of cleanup, Jackson added, "will be made solely by EPA, not by Dow."
In a related move, Jackson committed EPA to complete an assessment of the health risks from dioxins by the end of 2010. The evaluation's conclusions will affect how much cleanup will ultimately have to be done in the polluted Michigan waterways and at other dioxin-tainted sites across the U.S. And they will provide regulators with clarity on what levels of cleanup will protect human health and the environment, DEQ's McCann explains.
EPA will release a draft version of the dioxin assessment by the end of the year, according to Jackson. That document has been under development since 1991.
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