Dow to argue for reduced cleanup

Framework puts Bay City last in line

Thursday, January 27, 2005

By Jeff Kart Times Writer

A recently unveiled framework for addressing dioxin contamination in the Saginaw River watershed leaves many unanswered questions.

But state officials, who signed the 73-page agreement with Dow Chemical Co. last week after months of closed-door negotiations, say the plan will result in a cleanup that is protective of public health.

What they aren't sure of, however, is exactly when contamination in the lower Saginaw River and Bay in Bay County will be addressed, and what cleanup standard Dow will have to follow for the watershed.

Critics of the plan, meanwhile, include the state's major environmental groups, which plan to pressure Gov. Jennifer Granholm to drop the framework and enforce Dow's operating license, which calls for the contamination to be addressed at a stringent cleanup level.

"The big picture for everyone is that what happens in this area is going to determine what happens in watersheds across the state," said Michelle Hurd Riddick of Saginaw, a member of the Lone Tree Council, a local environmental group.

Dioxins are byproducts of chemical manufacturing that have been linked to cancer, birth defects and other health problems in humans.

Dioxin levels that are harmful to humans and wildlife have been found in shoreline soils and the sediment of the river and bay, state officials say.

The framework lays out the ground rules for addressing the contamination, while giving Dow an opportunity to argue for less-stringent cleanup standards.

Under the agreement, Dow will take immediate actions in contaminated areas in Midland and along the Tittabawassee River, where dioxin has been found at concentrations of at least 1,000 parts per trillion, said state Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Robert A. McCann.

The actions, to decrease the possibility of people being exposed to harmful levels of dioxin-laden soils through skin contact or inhalation, will involve cleaning homes and covering bare soils at about 100 homes in Midland and 135 homes along the Tittabawassee River, said John C. Musser, a Dow spokesman.

Musser said he doesn't know how much the company may spend.

The 1,000 parts per trillion number is based on a federal "action level" standard from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR.

Short-term exposure to contamination at that level is considered to be a health risk, McCann said.

The state residential cleanup standard is a more stringent 90 parts per trillion, referring to the risk from a lifetime of exposure.

Under Dow's operating license, the company has to address contamination that is 90 parts per trillion or higher in residential areas.

But McCann said Dow will have an opportunity under the framework to complete a "bioavailability study" of animals, to research how much dioxin stays in a person's body after exposure to certain levels of the toxin.

The study, with a completion goal of Dec. 31, will be used to determine a cleanup standard for the Tittabawassee River and the upper five miles of the Saginaw River, from Dow's plant downstream to the Sixth Street turning basin in Saginaw, McCann said.

Hurd Riddick said it's not right for the state to make an exception for Dow.

She said the framework will only result in further delays, more studies and do little to protect public health.

She said it also derails an earlier "scopes of work" plan Dow was operating under, which included cleanup timelines.

The Michigan Environmental Council, Clean Water Action, Ecology Center, Sierra Club and other groups have expressed the same concerns.

McCann said the 90 parts per trillion standard is based on the assumption that 50 percent of the dioxin a person ingests stays in their blood.

"Based on all the science that we've seen so far, the number is appropriate," he said. "If they are able to demonstrate something different to us, then we're willing to take a look at it."

McCann said the bioavailability study will go through "rigorous scientific review" before it's accepted. A study that justifies a less-stringent standard would reduce cleanup costs and the cleanup area.

Musser said the state standard was calculated based on models and assumptions, and the bioavailability study, to be completed by University of Missouri researchers, will give scientists a better understanding of absorption rates, by feeding dioxin-laden soils to pigs and rats.

Musser said dredging contaminated soils from the river, which environmental groups have called for, hasn't been decided yet.

He said more sampling will be done along the Tittabawassee and upper Saginaw rivers in 2006 to determine "whether dredging makes any sense."

Dioxin contamination in the lower river and bay will likely be dealt with in a package deal, state officials say, with Dow setting aside millions of dollars for improvement projects to enhance access to natural resources and improve wildlife habitat.

In exchange, all government claims against the company for lower river and bay contamination will be settled.

"There's lots of contributions to the state of the river and the watershed and the bay, beyond the scope of anything Dow might have contributed," Musser said.

"We want to do the responsible thing and be a part of any activities that can address the Saginaw Bay and the Saginaw River."

The framework obligates Dow to develop a proposed work plan by the end of the year that will outline sampling to be done along the Tittabawassee and the upper Saginaw.

"Once the investigation is completed, then we will be into actually doing cleanup work," Musser said, adding that there is no timeline for a physical cleanup to begin.

Meetings will be held later this year to gather public input on addressing contamination in the lower river and bay, McCann said. None have been scheduled yet.

"That's going to be a longer-term project," McCann said, and is not part of the immediate actions called for in the framework.

McCann said state officials look forward to quelling people's fears about the plan during public input meetings to be held later this year throughout the watershed.

McCann said the DEQ chose to go behind closed doors to hash out differences, and thinks the framework will move the process forward faster than if the DEQ had chosen to push on without any talks, and the issue ended up in court.

State environmental groups think a fundamental goal should be a cleanup that results in a watershed that provides safe swimming, fishing and drinking water.

McCann said the DEQ is committed to that.

"We wouldn't be comfortable in saying we're OK with something that wasn't protective (of clean air, water and land)," he said. "We honestly believe we are going to get somewhere through this process.

"This isn't going to be an overnight cleanup process where all of a sudden the dioxin's gone. It doesn't work like that. But this puts us on a path toward that goal. From our perspective, this is the best way to get there."

The framework is online at

- Jeff Kart covers the environment and politics for The Times. He can be reached at 894-9639.

© 2005 Bay City Times

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