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Steven Chester, 01/08/06, response to MDN Editorial 12/30/05

 
DEQ hopeful dioxin discussion can continue
 
Steven E. Chester, Midland Daily News 01/08/2006
    I read with interest your editorial entitled: "Granholm should rein in DEQ, wait for results of U-M study." I respect your right to share your views with your readers, and am hopeful you will share mine with them as well. Let me begin by pointing out that several statements in your editorial are incorrect.
    First, in Michigan’s cleanup law "facility" is the word the Legislature chose when referring to property that is contaminated. A parcel of property that is contaminated is – by operation of law – a "facility." The DEQ does not — in fact cannot – designate a property to be a facility. True, the department may have reason to believe a property is contaminated based on existing data, but a property owner always has the opportunity to show otherwise based on other information. If a property is contaminated, this triggers important protections for the homeowner, including imposing on the polluter the financial responsibility to clean up the property. Also, if a property is contaminated (is a facility), a potential new homeowner of the property must be informed of this fact by the existing homeowner. These are clearly reasonable and desirable public policy outcomes.
    Second, despite what is said in your editorial, the algorithms used to set cleanup levels have not been a source of historical controversy or dispute. The algorithms are formulas developed by scientists over time to account for what the science tells us about human exposure to a particular contaminant. In using these formulas, the DEQ is not doing anything unique or extraordinary. The formula for soil contamination is technically similar to that used by the EPA and by other states to set cleanup levels. Except for modest adjustments, this soil formula has been in use by the DEQ since 1995 to set cleanup levels for literally hundreds of contaminants.
    Let me also respond to your statement that the DEQ must be reined in. This implies that the department somehow has acted arbitrarily and inappropriately in responding to the dioxin issue. To the contrary, let me assure you that with respect to dioxin, the DEQ has spent more time and resources on it than on any other issue during my tenure as director. We have also done extensive public outreach, hosting nine public meetings since March 2005. Throughout, our goal has always been to strike a fair balance between protecting human health and the environment, and preserving the economic well-being of the affected communities and homeowners.
    We believe we have found the right balance in the Framework Agreement signed by DEQ and The Dow Chemical Co. in January 2005. The framework requires (as you suggest) that the worst contamination be addressed first while additional studies are conducted. The framework requires Dow to implement interim steps to address those properties with levels of dioxin at or above 1,000 parts per trillion (ppt). This was done for certain priority areas in 2005, and will expand to additional priority areas in 2006. The framework also references both the bioavailability study and the U-M blood study. The good news is that both of these studies should be substantially completed this year. The results of the bioavailability study may have direct bearing on the formula used in calculating a dioxin cleanup level. In contrast, the U-M blood study serves a purpose unrelated to the algorithm but pertinent to the overall health of residents living in the city of Midland and along the Tittabawassee River.
    The framework provides a balanced approach to resolving the dioxin matter. Similarly, the Policy Directive I issued to DEQ staff in July 2005 strikes an appropriate balance between the interests of existing and new homeowners, and the legal mandate that areas of contamination be cleaned up. The Directive states that the DEQ will consider property contaminated only if: 1) site-specific sampling data exists; 2) the property is identified as contaminated by the liable party in an approved work plan; or 3) reasonable and scientifically valid inferences can be drawn from existing data. It is this last point that troubles some people, but this goes to the heart of sound science. Scientists routinely draw inferences or reach conclusions based on representative data. Does it make sense to deprive the DEQ of the ability to review data in a scientific manner? Should we likewise deny Dow scientists the opportunity to draw inferences from their dioxin data? Should we deny U-M researchers the opportunity to reach conclusions regarding the blood study presently being conducted?
    I am hopeful that discussions on this issue can continue in a manner based on what is best for the environment, the public health, and the prosperity of your community. I look forward to working together with the public and the legislature to reach a satisfactory conclusion to this issue.

    Steven E. Chester is director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

©Midland Daily News 2006

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