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Joan, 02/22/07, post on Michigan Liberal.com

Reading Eric B.'s interaction with the Mackinac Center earlier this week made me all nostalgic for my hometown of Midland. Well, until I remembered this essay I wrote last year for a class. I can't think of a better argument for not slashing the DEQ.

Warning: The essay is around 1,000 words, and some of the links are PDFs.

I grew up in Midland, Michigan with three parents: My mother, my father, and the Dow Chemical Company. My father was and still is a chemical engineer in the plant, and my mother, who has since retired, worked as an office manager in the corporate offices. Outside of our house, my third parent's name was on everything: There was the Grace A. Dow Memorial Library and the Dow Gardens. Both high schools had a chemical element to them: My school mascot was the Midland Chemic, and the other school was the H. H. Dow Chargers. Even if the buildings didn't have the Dow name on the sign out front, such as the arts center and several prominent citizens' homes, they had a suspicious look, since they were designed by Alden B. Dow, who had been a student of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Dow not only dominates the cultural landscape of my hometown, but the physical one: The plant is truly a sight to behold.
From anywhere in town, you can see the glow on the horizon, and as you approach it, night becomes day. As you drive down Saginaw Road, the lights glitter like a movie marquee as the sparkle along they thousands of miles of chemical tubing, some larger in diameter than a person is tall. Through these tubes flows the substances that make Midland bigger and more important than the other dying auto towns in the area. Sure, these substances are dangerous chemicals, but they are the lifeblood of the town, supporting thousands of citizens directly and thousands indirectly. Without these chemicals, there would be no Midland.

Some years ago, I had come to terms with the fact that although I didn’t agree with everything that Dow did, I had to admit that the company was responsible for supporting the first 18 years of my life. I didn’t necessarily like that I came from a place so dominated by one industry, or that certain environmental damage had occurred due to the sheer size of the plant. But it was a chemical company, for chrissake, so some damage was inevitable. The benefits appeared to outweigh this damage. How many kids had gone to college on Dow money? How many families were supported by this monster on the horizon? Heck, how many small town high schools could afford $1.4 million renovations to their football stadiums?

Besides, Dow had been pretty good about cleaning up its mess. Or so I thought, before I heard about the deer. Back in 2004, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had put out an advisory that people should not eat any deer liver or turkey hunted in the Tittabawassee River Valley due to high levels of dioxin found in the meat.

Dioxin has been called the most toxic substance made by man. Substances, actually: There are hundreds of chemicals that fall under the umbrella of dioxin, some more toxic than others. However, all of these compounds are considered toxic enough that the acceptable level for dioxin in Michigan is only 90 parts per trillion (ppt). Yes, that’s trillion with a T. This level of toxicity has been linked to elevated risks of human cancers, blood diseases, and birth defects, as well as possible mental development problems in children.

According to the DEQ, upriver from the Dow Plant on the Tittabawassee River dioxin levels are between 3 and 5 ppt. Downriver from the Dow plant, there are sediments that have levels of 2000 ppt. Needless to say, some people are extremely angry about these numbers. As a result, a study has been conducted by the University of Michigan testing residents in the area for dioxin levels in their blood. This creates an interesting paradox in that there is currently dioxin in the area deer, but not yet in the people. A lawsuit has been brought against Dow for falling property values in the area, since now people won’t be able to resell their possibly contaminated homes.

As is inevitable in a company town, there are people who are mad because Dow is being attacked. A group called the Tittabawassee River Voice is angry at the “environutz” who are invading their river valley and suggesting that the soil and the people might be contaminated. One valley resident calls the environmentalists “terrorists” on her website, http://tittabawassee.blogspot.com/. She notes that Dow has put in a nice park on the river for area residents to enjoy, and that the company brings good cookies to public meetings. How could we, the ungrateful children concerned about a little mess in a little floodplain, be so angry?

I understand the River Voice’s logic. I do: Everyone wants to defend her family when it is attacked. No one wants to believe that the provider that put food on their family’s table for the last century might have done something wrong. If Dow is responsible for the dioxin contamination, that means that the environutz are right. It means that their neighbor’s little boy’s birth defects might not be the act of God that they had blamed it on all those years. It means that their own risk of cancer is higher, and that they might have unwittingly poisoned their children.

I can empathize. My brother was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma at 21 years old; we had blamed it on genetics and bad luck. But his form of cancer is one of those that has a high correlation with dioxin exposure, and it made us wonder. It’s scary to think that he might have gotten cancer from something as simple as going fishing on Saginaw Bay, or those canoe trips he took on the river with the Boy Scouts.

But even if it’s difficult to prove the correlation between my brother’s cancer and the chemical company on the river, once the thoughts start, they’re hard to stop. In my head, I find myself hearing the voices of those extremist environmentalists, and I start to think they might be right: Dow might not be such a good parent after all. Even worse, all those times that I supported my third parent, I was wrong, too. Eating crow is hard, but it’s something that we have to do. Midland residents just need to make sure that they don’t get that crow downriver from the plant.

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