Kathie Marchlewski, Midland Daily News 01/13/2005
The end of January will mark year number three that residents of the Tittabawassee River flood plain have carried the knowledge that their yards are contaminated with dioxin levels dozens of times higher than the state considers safe. Still, there's no word on how or when the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will enforce the state law that requires the toxin to be cleaned up.
The lieutenant governor's office, the MDEQ and The Dow Chemical Co., which is responsible for the contamination, have been working on a plan of action for months, and are long past the Oct. 31 deadline set by Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The ongoing silence and closed-door nature of the discussions has some residents frustrated.
"I don't want to hear the answer 'soon' any longer," said Kathy Henry, who lives on the Tittabawassee River in Freeland and is the lead litigant in a potential class action suit against Dow over the contamination.
"The foot dragging that has been going on is unacceptable, and the people deserve some answers," Henry said in a letter this week to the DEQ. "Do you have any idea what it feels like to live in the contamination, only to be shut out from any kind of information about what is going on, or the intentions of the state, month after month after month?"
A spokeswoman for Granholm said an announcement on cleanup plans is near, and the state shares the sense of urgency.
"Obviously we would have liked to announce this sooner than later," said spokeswoman Liz Boyd. "But this is far too important and we want to get it right. We want to make sure everything is fully resolved."
Midland has been haunted by the dioxin dilemma for more than two decades. Most recently, the toxin was discovered in high levels in the sediment of the Saginaw River. The final agreement between Dow and the DEQ is expected to put a plan in place that will deal with all three problem areas once and for all.
Environmental groups are fearing that secretive negotiations could be brewing a consent order relieving Dow of responsibilities by relaxing the state residential direct contact criteria of 90 parts per trillion.
Gov. John Engler's administration in 2002 crafted a deal that would have increased the allowable level of dioxin locally to more than 800 parts per trillion. That plan fell apart in his final days of office.
DEQ spokeswoman Patricia Spitzley assures that a similar venture is not in the works. "The cleanup level is what it is," she said. "That is the law and that is the criteria we are using to craft the agreement. We are not compromising the environmental statutes or our responsibility as environmental stewards."
There could be provisions within the agreement that would allow the company to complete a bioavailability study to show whether the allowable level should be increased, she added.
Dow officials consider the state overly conservative in its assumptions about the absorption of dioxin into the body from the stomach after soil consumption and has completed a pilot study with the University of Missouri in an effort to prove it. If the DEQ approves the protocol used in the test study, a comprehensive study will be pursued, said Dow spokesman John Musser.
Musser said negotiations with the DEQ have come a long way in the last week and a half, though the two still are discussing wording and documents.
"There's been excellent progress," he said, but wouldn't speculate on an announcement release date.
©Midland Daily News 2005
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