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
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
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
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."