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Dow recovers from Midland flooding

The company says the event didn’t lead to hazardous discharges

by Alexander H. Tullo
May 27, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 21


A photo of flooding in Midland, Michigan.
Credit: Associated Press
A dam break contributed to severe flooding in Midland, Michigan.

Dow has begun cleanup and recovery at its Midland, Michigan, chemical complex, following flooding from rain and dam failures.

On May 19, heavy rains caused the Tittabawassee River to crest above flood stage. That evening, two dams ruptured, contributing to flooding in the region. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency for Midland County, and more than 10,000 residents evacuated.

Dow’s manufacturing facility sits on the eastern bank of the Tittabawassee. The facility once made many Dow products, but due to restructuring and divestitures over the years, the company only makes silicones there now.

Other firms operate several former Dow plants on the site. For example, Corteva makes agrochemicals there, DuPont has a methylcellulose plant, Trinseo has latex and acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene units, and SK Saran produces specialty plastics.

Dow began shutting down operations at the facility even before the breach of the two dams. The day after the flooding, Dow acknowledged that “there were flood waters commingling with on-site containment ponds.” Its headquarters, at a separate Midland location, wasn’t impacted by the event, the company says.

In a May 22 appearance on the business news channel CNBC, Dow CEO Jim Fitterling said the containment ponds hold brine that the site uses for groundwater remediation and pose no chemical hazards. “To our knowledge, there’s nothing that’s been released,” he said.

More than a century of chemical manufacturing at the site has led to contamination on and offsite, notably dioxins as a result of chlorine-based chemical production. Elevated dioxin levels have been found in sediment along the Tittabawassee, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Fitterling said he wasn’t concerned that the floods would churn up the dioxins in the sediment and noted that floods in 2017 had no such impact. He did promise to conduct tests with the EPA.

Rich Sorkin, CEO of Jupiter Intelligence, a consulting firm that specializes in climate change, warns that what happened in Midland “was nothing close to a worst-case event.” Chemical companies generally need to update their views about risk to accommodate increasingly severe and more frequent storms due to global warming, he says.

“The risks have increased quite a bit over the past 10 years and are continuing to increase over the next decade in ways that are quite material,” Sorkin says. Chemical plants will need to put up protective barriers at plants or move vulnerable equipment to safer ground, he adds.



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