Midland’s struggle to overcome its checkered environmental history is about to intensify.
After a decades-long tug-of-war over contamination level standards, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is making it clear: It believes dioxin is a problem in Midland and The Dow Chemical Co. must do something about it.
Despite efforts by City of Midland officials to stave off soil testing until the DEQ justified its residential cleanup standards, sampling is expected to take place this summer.
City officials estimate that 8,800 homes and 21,300 people – nearly half the city’s population – could be affected by DEQ regulations and Dow cleanup requirements.
Previous results show the manufacturing byproduct, deposited via airborne emissions from past incineration at Dow, is likely to be in excess of the state standard of 90 parts per trillion as far as two miles from the Dow plant.
The City of Midland had been in talks with the MDEQ, requesting that a health study be performed to determine if dioxin exposure has affected the community.
It also wanted the DEQ to note in advance what remediation actions will be required at what levels. Some response activities discussed have included less intrusive measures, such as an educational campaign warning residents to limit soil contact.
The goal of the city is to keep properties from "environmental limbo," City Manager Karl Tomion said. "We would end up with a tainted and permanently stigmatized community."
The city hired environmental consultants Fishbeck, Thompson, Carr and Huber, Inc. of Grand Rapids and lawyers from Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, P.L.C., of Lansing to provide an opinion on the matter and to help communicate with state regulators.
They also questioned the DEQ about the cleanup standard, arguing the dioxin criteria should be 230 parts per trillion under the standard formula for contact criteria for other hazardous substances.
"If the (state’s allowable) level was 230 parts per trillion, that would substantially reduce the problem," Tomion said.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which is undergoing a reassessment of its dioxin standards, has a cleanup criteria of 1,000 ppt. Dioxin tests in the 1990s in Midland found many properties below 200 ppt.
A letter to city attorneys from DEQ Deputy Director Jim Sygo says Midland property owners likely will be subject to a "facility" label that will require owners to disclose to potential buyers information about contamination.
It’s the same label imposed on residents in the Tittabawassee River flood plain also dealing with dioxin contamination attributed to Dow manufacturing processes.
About 300 have filed a class-action suit. The case is pending in Saginaw County Circuit Court. Other property owners – among an estimated 2,000 in total – have said they just want the DEQ to remove the "facility" label from their residences.
Sygo said data is already present to make a reasonable inference that large areas of Midland should be identified as "facilities."
He adds that "further delay of the corrective action process ... may result in unnecessary, continued exposures to the Midland population."
Sygo in his letter also addresses the possibility of a future health study. He said the information has little value to the DEQ.
State regulations calculate cancer risks based on the most sensitive criteria: one additional occurance above the cancer background rate for 100,000 people. Midland’s population is too small to make a significant finding.
"Regardless of whether there are health impacts, our program is preventative and not reactive," said Cheryl Howe, permit engineer for DEQ’s Waste and Hazardous Materials Division.
What happens next
The city’s efforts now will focus on informing its residents about recent developments.
Tomion said he doesn’t know if the city will proceed through the legal system to protect the interests of its citizens.
"There is a chance for the 90 parts per trillion to be challenged legally. I don’t know if that’s the city’s responsibility or Dow’s responsibility," he said.
Even if it doesn’t initiate legal action, Midland could end up in court if it doesn’t agree to give access to property that the DEQ wants tested.
Dow is required under its operating permit to address the contamination and to make a best effort to gain access. That can include taking resisters to court, Howe said.
Terri Johnson, Dow spokeswoman, said the company understands the city’s uneasiness.
"The city has to take these actions as they affect the citizens," she said. "We have to follow the directive of the regulatory process."