Dow dioxin tests upset state

It's an issue of trust, government scientists say

June 3, 2005

BY HUGH McDIARMID JR.
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

Dow Chemical Co. conducted secret dioxin studies in violation of their operating license, say state and federal regulators -- a blow to trust between the company and officials negotiating Dow's plan to clean up the pollutant.

Government scientists on an April field trip stumbled across a Dow contractor sampling Tittabawassee River sediment, said Greg Rudloff, corrective activities project manager with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The state Department of Environmental Quality demanded information from Dow, which produced a dozen studies analysts are just starting to review.

"That they have not been forthcoming with us is a concern," Rudloff said Wednesday.

The final batch of Dow's studies arrived at state offices this week.

"We were upset," said Jim Sygo, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. "We just had no idea they were going to do that sort of sampling.

"Has this created damage to the process" of a negotiated cleanup? "I would say no. Has this created a credibility issue? The answer to that is yes."

Dow spokesman John Musser disputed the contention that regulators were kept in the dark.

"That's not accurate," he said. "We've done nothing here to hide that information."

He said the DEQ was aware of most, if not all, of the testing, although he conceded work plans might not have been submitted in some cases. The nature of most of the testing, he said, did not require the state's approval anyway.

The testing occurred in 2003-05, including last summer when the company was in tense negotiations with the state over plans to clean up the contaminated watershed. The company is required to have such work approved by regulators who ensure scientific protocols are followed.

"That's something that was not done," said Sygo. Furthermore, the state was unable to request samples of tested material, which commonly are used to independently validate Dow's results.

"So we will approach those materials with caution," said Sygo, referring to Dow's test results.

Dow could be liable for penalties, including fines for violating terms of its operating license, but that issue has not yet been discussed by DEQ brass, said Sygo.

The controversy fuels the ire of Dow critics who have contended for decades that the company has failed to adequately address cleanup of contamination that extends dozens of miles downstream from Dow's Midland plant through the Tittabawassee River valley, the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay.

"We were told there was no sampling or analytical data going on, and there was," said Michelle Hurd-Riddick, an outspoken Dow critic from Saginaw. "Now they've given us this data, but you don't know if you have all of it. What if they only gave 75% of it? We just don't know."

The data might have been used by Dow negotiators during last summer's cleanup negotiations, she suggested -- putting state negotiators at a disadvantage.

Musser said every bit of data from the studies has been supplied to regulators, who say they requested the data during a conference call last month. Sygo said the information would be posted on the DEQ's Web site next week. Musser said the studies were geared toward developing a comprehensive plan to investigate and characterize the contamination. That plan, due to the state by year's end, is a key step in creating a cleanup strategy -- something the state, Dow and environmentalists all want.

Assailing Dow for conducting studies that will create a better cleanup plan is counterproductive, said Musser: "No good deed goes unpunished," he said.

But activists say the controversy is part of a pattern of Dow's intransigence.

"We know this company has a habit of selectively presenting data," said Tracey Easthope, director of the environmental health program at the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor. She referred to last summer when the company issued a press release implying its study of dioxin in Tittabawassee valley wildlife showed levels were safe. Weeks later, state health officials using the same data issued an unprecedented warning against eating some game meat.

"It's important that we connect the dots between these things, and ask, 'What are the consequences to the company?' If there aren't any, we lose the oversight power of the DEQ."

Contact HUGH McDIARMID JR. at 248-351-3295 or mcdiarmid@freepress.com.

 


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