Pollution cleanup bill getting messy
August 9, 2005

Furor over dioxin contamination downstream from Dow Chemical Co.'s Midland headquarters has spilled into the Legislature, where a controversial bill aims to change how pollution cleanup is handled in Michigan.

Proponents say the Homeowner Fairness Bill would prevent overzealous environmental regulators from unfairly branding clean properties as contaminated.

Opponents say it would make cleanups lengthier and more expensive in cases ranging from toxic groundwater in Ann Arbor to lead-laced soil in Detroit.

The bill, sponsored by State Rep. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, passed the House last month with bipartisan support. It could be taken up in the Senate later this month.

It requires individual tests of properties in order to designate those parcels as polluted. Currently, the Department of Environmental Quality can broadly designate areas as polluted when tests of nearby areas create a reasonable assumption that they are polluted.

But what's reasonable to DEQ scientists differs from what's reasonable to their critics, including Midland-area residents angry over the agency's role in the dioxin cleanup.

"The DEQ's in people's backyards all over Michigan, and people don't like it," said Shirley Salas, a Tittabawassee River resident and outspoken critic of the state's tactics. The state considers about 400 properties in and near Midland to be contaminated with dioxin, although most of them have never been tested. "It's an arbitrary power they have that people don't like," Salas said.

Cleaning could be slower, costlier

But the DEQ, along with environmental groups lobbying against the bill, says the bill's effects will have far-reaching consequences. Cleanups that involve such things as leaking underground gas tanks in the UP and swaths of toxic lead in Detroit's soils could become slower and more expensive if each individual parcel must be tested, said DEQ spokesman Bob McCann.

Currently, state scientists deem property contaminated if testing nearby makes it clear that it is, said McCann. For example, when test wells showed groundwater at the former Gelman Sciences plant near Ann Arbor to be polluted with the degreasing chemical dioxane, the DEQ concluded that properties in between the test wells also had tainted water.

Likewise, because testing has shown high dioxin levels throughout the Tittabawassee River sediment and floodplain, the DEQ assumed that the entire floodplain is contaminated.

But the assumption created an uproar in early 2004, when the DEQ mailed a newsletter to Midland-area homeowners suggesting that their properties were laced with dioxin.

The mailing alarmed many residents by suggesting that they were legally obligated to disclose the pollution when selling land -- a disclosure likely to depress land values.

The DEQ's McCann says the mailing was "unclear," and was not meant to imply that all 2,000 properties were tainted. The agency says roughly 400 properties in and near Midland are contaminated with Dow dioxin -- and are legally termed a "facility" of Dow -- and are subject to seller's disclosures.

A word heats up the dispute

The volume of the dispute rose last week when Moolenaar and other legislators asked Attorney General Mike Cox to decide the legality of a recent DEQ clarification on how the "facility" designation is applied.

Moolenaar says the DEQ action constitutes a "secret" rule change that skirts required public hearings.

Paul Damore, who lives with his parents on the river floodplain, said both he and his parents believe it would be unethical to keep likely contamination a secret. . The proposed bill would be a loophole to "encourage the sale of contaminated property to unknowing buyers," he said.

He said the uproar over the DEQ's designation detracts from the real issue -- the pollution itself: " 'Facility' is just a word. And a word is not going to give you cancer or diabetes," he said.

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

What is dioxin?
Dioxin, a toxic residue created by incineration and chemical manufacturing, was released into the air and the Tittabawassee River for decades by Dow Chemical Company's Midland plant. It binds to the soil and river sediment, where it breaks down almost imperceptibly over time.

Dioxin causes cancer in some forms. In animal studies, it has disrupted hormonal systems, leading to damaged fetal development, suppressed immune systems and diabetes. Humans, especially fetuses and infants, are at risk of similar damage, but it is unclear how much dioxin it takes to create significant harm to a person.

State regulators and Dow are working to clean up or otherwise protect the public and wildlife from the contamination in Midland and along the river. 

For additional articles like this one, go to the Tittabawassee 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.