Dioxin levels puzzling

Tuesday, December 21, 2004


M. Pam Horner couldn't help but scratch her head.

New tests showed that dioxin levels had spiked 21 times higher than anything she had seen previously along the Saginaw River.

Horner, a physical scientist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, confirmed this month that sediment samples taken in the navigable channel of the upper Saginaw River this year are sound.

The samples revealed dioxin levels up to 11,812 parts per trillion -- a dramatic increase from the high of 538 parts per trillion collected in 1999.

Horner said she has double checked the data, retested samples and probed for potential testing errors. She has found nothing.

"I spent a lot of time doing quality control," she said. "I don't think the laboratory erred."

The samples have piqued the interest of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which stated in a November letter to the corps that it must better address dioxin contamination before scraping the river bottom of silt.

The corps will decide in January whether to scoop more than 3 million cubic yards of muck from the river -- a chore that will keep the channel open to shipping.

Much of the silt would end up in Zilwaukee Township. Corps engineers have selected a 281-acre farm field straddling Saginaw and Bay counties as the most practical dump site.

The decision doesn't settle well for some Zilwaukee residents and environmental groups, who banded together this year under the banner Citizens Against Toxic Substances. They say the corps' findings attest to the potentially poisonous consequences of dumping contaminated sediment in their community.

"The discovery of these severely elevated samples is reason to go back to the drawing board and do it right, beginning with an environmental impact statement," said dredging critic Sue Cameron, 55, of Zilwaukee Township.

Now residents have big brother behind them.

Kenneth Westlake, chief of the EPA's environmental planning and evaluation branch, has asked the corps not to move forward with the project until it resolves dioxin issues. His agency has asked the corps to:

t Coordinate dredging with the state Department of Environmental Quality and Dow Chemical Co., which are negotiating a long-term cleanup plan for the Tittabawassee River, Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay.

t Burrow extra material from the river bottom to create a "sediment trap" for contaminated material.

t Abandon dredging techniques that would skirt around pockets of high contamination and create islands of dioxin that could erode.

Move sediments with the highest dioxin levels to a more isolated and protected facility.

Jim Galloway, a corps ecologist, said his agency isn't taking those comments lightly.

"We coordinate with the EPA on all of projects," he said. "If they have a concern, we take that seriously."

Meanwhile, Horner said she is baffled.

She recorded the highest level, 11,812 parts per trillion, just north of the Interstate 675 bridge near Saginaw Rock Products Co., 1701 N. First.

What's perplexing is that another sample, taken a stone's throw upstream, found 144 parts per trillion. Another, measured near the shoreline, recorded 173.09 parts per trillion.

Horner stands behind the numbers.

"It is a fair representation of what is in the river," she said.

DEQ spokeswoman Patricia Spitzley declined to speculate on what caused the dioxin peaks or who is to blame. She said simply that the results confirm a need for further study.

"Anytime we see a high level, that is an issue of concern," she said. "It highlights a need for additional sampling and investigation."

EPA officials blame the contamination on Dow. In a letter to the corps, they said dioxin in the Saginaw River is linked largely to the Midland plant.

Not so fast, said Dow spokesman John Musser.

"There are several rivers that feed into the Saginaw River. The Tittabawassee is one of those," Musser said. "On each of those other rivers, we have levels of historic contamination caused by municipal waste treatment, agricultural runoff or other industrial operations.

"What we're saying is, let's not jump to conclusions. There may or may not be a connection with the Midland operation."

With samples in hand, Horner said the corps plans to meet with DEQ officials to determine what caused the elevated dioxin levels and how to best deal with them. v

Jeremiah Stettler is a staff writer at the Saginaw News. You may reach him at 776-9685.

© 2004 Saginaw News


For additional articles like this one, go to the Tittabawasse River Watch web site www.trwnews.net for complete coverage of the Tittabawassee River Dow Chemical dioxin contamination saga. . The Newspaper / Media page of our site contains an extensive archive of media articles dating back to January 2002. The source organization's web site link is listed to the right of the article, visit often for other news in our area. The Newspaper / Media page may be accessed by scrolling down to the bottom of the CONTENTS section and clicking on the Newspaper/Media link.