Pollutants leave scared landscape

The Detroit News

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Dale G. Young / The Detroit News

Signs along the Tittabawassee River in the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge warn visitors not to fish in a waterway in which toxins still swirl after having been released decades ago.

Pollutants leave scarred landscape

Hundreds of troubled hot spots dot the basin decades after they were targeted for cleanup.

Dale G. Young / The Detroit News

Homeowners have sued Dow Chemical Co. for payment should dioxins from its Midland plant ruin their home values. The company has until the end of the year to begin drafting a cleanup plan.
A changed landscape

Development and industry have imperiled a great ecosystem.

Dale G. Young / The Detroit News

"We liked this. We still have a view of the river, I guess. But the back yard is worthless." John Taylor, whose property touches the Tittabawassee River

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THOMAS TOWNSHIP, Mich. -- Most of the pollution swirling past John Taylor's back yard is older than he is, byproducts of a vast chemical plant upstream still churning in the Tittabawassee River's slow currents.

Along the way, it tainted back yards and public parks, swept up out of the riverbed by floodwaters. Environmental tests have found toxins, known as dioxins, in dozens of spots beneath and beside the river, stretching downstream all the way to the muck at the bottom of Saginaw Bay.

"You can't imagine unless you're sitting here with a family. It's devastating," Taylor, 58, said, standing in his wide back yard, hands on his hips as he watched the muddy brown water ripple past.

The Great Lakes have a long history of this kind of pollution, the toxic remnants of more than a century of heavy industry around their shores. But long after that pollution stopped -- after clean-water rules cut discharges or factories and mines were boarded up and abandoned -- the scars from that contamination have not fully healed.

The trouble spots are almost too numerous to count, both in the lakes and dotted across the vast basin that feeds them. Among the biggest are 43 sections of the lakes singled out by the United States and Canada for cleanup in the 1980s because of the extent to which contamination had harmed the waters. There are also hundreds -- if not thousands -- of other sites, on land and under the water, ranging in size from the widespread contamination around Saginaw and Midland to thousands of scattered, leaky underground storage tanks left behind by old gas stations and industries.

Many remain poisoned years -- or even decades -- after the government targeted them for cleanups.

"I tend to look at these things in terms of how many generations of little kids have to grow up next to them," said Rita Jack, who monitors water issues for the Sierra Club's Michigan chapter. "Granted, it takes a really long time to contaminate these sites, but it makes me insane that it takes so long to get them addressed and clean them up."

As a consequence, the pollution is still bubbling back up in spots around the lakes: from an old chemical dump on the Detroit River; from ash piles buried beneath a resort outside Petoskey; and from the sediments at the bottom of the Tittabawassee River.

Dow Chemical Co. stanched off almost all of the dioxin releases from its vast Midland plant more than 30 years ago, and most of the discharges that tainted the river ended long before that. Some tests show the chemicals in the water are leftovers from manufacturing that took place at the plant before World War I. But the same samples also confirm the dioxins have spread the length of the Tittabawassee, down the Saginaw River and into Lake Huron.

With the contamination has come a bitter dispute over what to do about it. In 2003, Taylor and other homeowners along the river sued Dow, hoping to force the company to compensate them if the dioxins in their back yards wreck their property values.

Taylor once thought of his house as someplace he could spend his retirement, with a back yard sloping in the shade down to the river. Years ago, he would gather friends down by the water and spend the evenings gathered around a fire pit. Now weeds poke up through it. The money he put into renovating the house, he fears, is lost.

"We liked this," he said. "We still have a view of the river, I guess. But the back yard is worthless."

Toxicologists who have studied dioxins say many of the dangers they pose are not fully understood. Some studies have found links to cancer and damage to the immune system; others have not. Additional health studies are ongoing. But the research has raised enough concern that regulators say exposure to high concentrations of dioxins poses an unacceptable health risk. Many health advisories against eating Great Lakes fish, for example, are based on dioxin contamination.

Dow officials insist dioxins pose almost no risk to neighbors or the environment. The company's scientists tested the most dangerous types of dioxins on animals and tracked the health of workers who were exposed to high concentrations of the chemicals. One study tracked mortality rates over more than 50 years. The studies found little evidence of health problems.

"We believe the exposure people would have in this area is substantially below anything that would cause health effects," said Michael Carson, Dow's regional health director in Midland.

State environmental regulators disagree. Samples taken from beneath and beside the river show dioxin levels far higher than what state and federal regulators consider to be safe. Officials have given Dow until the end of the year to start mapping a cleanup plan; meanwhile, they have ordered the company to dispatch cleaning crews to homes in areas with the highest dioxin levels.

Detroit News file

The Dow Chemical plant was closed down more than 30 years ago, but not before the toxins it released had spread throughout the area.

The United States and Canada have been straining to clean up this kind of pollution for years: sites laced with dioxins, PCBs, mercury and other harmful chemicals that stay in water or sediment long after they're released. Officials on both sides of the border say they've made progress, but admit the pace has been slow and there's a lot of work left to be done.

In 1987, the two countries agreed to target 43 parts of the lakes where lingering contamination still badly impaired the quality of the water, labeling them, somewhat euphemistically, as "Areas of Concern." To date, only two have been fully restored, both of them in Canada. In two others, environmental officials say they've done all the cleanup work they can, but it will take time for the water quality to recover.

"Many of these are problems that unfolded over 50 or 100 years of urbanization, industrial activity and all kinds of environmental stressors that take a long time to fix," said David Cowgill, the head of the technical assistance and analysis branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes program. "It isn't just a matter of these are simple fixes and people opted not to do it quickly."

The EPA hopes to get three sites on the U.S. side of the lakes -- in Manistique; Oswego, N.Y.; and Waukegan, Ill. -- clean enough to take off the list by the end of the year, said Mark Elster, an EPA analyst Meanwhile, a task force appointed by President Bush's administration has recommended spending $150 million a year over each of the next five years to dig contaminated sediments out of the Areas of Concern.

Other problems are festering on land, though no one knows precisely how many. The U.S. side of the basin has more than 130 sites in the federal Superfund program, which was set up to handle cleanup of some of the country's worst toxic hotspots. Thousands of other sites are contaminated but never made the federal list.

A report in 2003 by the Michigan Environmental Council estimated the state alone has 15,000 old landfills, factories and leaking underground tanks still in need of cleanup. Among them is a riverfront chemical dump in Riverview that's feared to be leaking mercury into the Detroit River. The government has known about the dump since 1979, when workers there unearthed the chemical stew that had been buried decades earlier.

At another site, outside Petoskey, water seeping through kiln ash left over from a cement plant that closed in the 1960s has carried a caustic mix of pollution into Lake Michigan. The leaks have forced state environmental officials to shut more than a mile of shoreline in the exclusive Bay Harbor resort; cleaning it up will cost as much as $45 million.

And there's the Tittabawassee.

Steven E. Chester, the director of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, said dioxin levels are high enough that some cleanup will be needed. But figuring out how to do that -- or where -- hasn't been easy. The dioxins creeping down the river have spread out widely in the riverbed, and they shift as the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers flow. Just pinpointing where they are is difficult.

But they need to find a way, said Michelle Hurd Riddick, a member of the Lone Tree Council, a local environmental group. And they need to do it soon.

"When you figure cleanup is going to take 10 or 15 years, and you're going to commit 20 years to fighting about it," she said, "that's a lifetime."

Dale G. Young / The Detroit News

A company hired by Dow dumps a foot of topsoil to cover a homeowner's garden as part of the state-ordered cleanup. Dow contends dioxins pose almost no risk to neighbors.

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.