SECRET MEMO

Dioxin report details deception
EPA found state failed to stand up to chemical giant

With the state's complicity, Dow Chemical Co. has delayed cleanup and misled the public about the dangers of dioxin it dumped decades ago into rivers downstream of its Midland plant, Environmental Protection Agency officials charged in a confidential August internal report.

The memo, obtained by the Free Press, also said Dow impeded state efforts to force a cleanup, concealed data and studies, tried to keep documents confidential that should have been made public and insisted on negotiating cleanup details with Gov. Jennifer Granholm's office, rather than staff of the state Department of Environmental Quality.

EPA officials said they could not discuss the memo because it is confidential.

"It's absolutely off-base," said Steve Chester, director of the DEQ, who said the state has pushed Dow hard, especially in the past four years.

But residents and environmental activists have criticized the lack of progress and secretiveness of the talks between Dow and Granholm's administration and during her predecessor Gov. John Engler's administration before he left office in 2002.

A Dow spokesman took issue with the entire memo.

"It reflects a misunderstanding by EPA of progress that was being made at the time those criticisms were levied," said John Musser.

The situation has left people living along the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers frustrated. Their yards and homes are contaminated with dioxin that continues to wash onto their land during flooding.

"I'm tired of this," said Saginaw environmental activist Michelle Hurd Riddick, who has pushed regulators since 2001. "It's been a long time."

Last month, the highest level of dioxin ever reported to the EPA was found in the Saginaw River near a park in Saginaw. The company and regulators agree the dioxin source is the Dow plant.

That so-called hot spot is being cleaned up now as an emergency, as are three others along the Tittabawassee. But the cleanup of 50 miles of rivers and floodplains out to Saginaw Bay, first discussed in the early 1980s, has not begun.

Dioxin is a potent by-product of manufacturing processes and incineration. Unlike many chemicals that cause concern for regulators when measured in parts per million or billion, dioxin is a concern at parts per trillion.

It can cause cancer and -- more important, some researchers say -- disrupt immune and reproductive systems. Some research suggests its effects are more lethal on animals than on humans.

Separately from the EPA memo, a high-ranking Dow employee, whose job was to oversee validation of test results of soil samples tested for dioxin along the river, filed a lawsuit in Saginaw County last month claiming tests by Dow contractors were so flawed that the laboratory doing the validation rejected them and then quit, saying it didn't want to continue validation work for Dow.

Priscilla Johnson Denney, a Dow environmental engineer, said she warned superiors of the problem and was demoted.

Dow hires contractors to sample soil and test for contaminants, and it uses an independent lab to double-check results. Regulators use the results to decide whether or not cleanup is needed.

A revealing memo

The EPA memo accidentally was released within recent weeks to the Lone Tree Council, an environmental group, under a Freedom of Information Act request.

It comes as the EPA, Dow and DEQ are talking privately about whether the EPA will take over the cleanup efforts from the state. It's the third time in five years that Dow and various regulators have held confidential negotiations over what will be cleaned up when.

The memo said that Dow, unlike most companies, has insisted on direct negotiations with the governor and with Chester of the DEQ.

For the Midland-based multinational company, much is at stake. An eventual cleanup is expected to cost tens of millions of dollars and perhaps much more. Dow employees 43,000 worldwide, including 6,000 at four Michigan plants.

The EPA memo also said:

Dow had done unapproved studies and collected data without telling regulators. The DEQ fined the firm $70,000 in January 2006 over illegal sampling.

Political figures, including legislators, have been involved on Dow's behalf, trying to soften standards in the company's favor.

Dow tried to make dioxin seem less toxic. The EPA issued a press release last month rebuking Dow for statements downplaying the extremely high sample found in the Saginaw River.

Dow used a dispute process to make documents confidential that should not be. The memo itself is one of those documents.

Examples cited in the memo are old history, Dow spokesman Musser said. He cited recent milestones in cleaning up the rivers, including the hot spot cleanups and the cleaning of 300 homeowners' properties where high dioxin levels were found.

Granholm spokeswoman Liz Boyd said any inference that Granholm's involvement was improper or contributed to delays "is ridiculous."

"Were we involved? You bet," said Boyd. "We are not going to apologize for being hands-on and working diligently to resolve the cleanup issues in that area."

Boyd said the governor wants the issue resolved and has made Lt. Gov. John Cherry her point man. She would not discuss whether Granholm met personally with Dow about the cleanup and said that Granholm meets all the time with major firms.

Chester, DEQ director, said the Dow dioxin issue is one of the state's two most serious pollution issues (the other is the Kalamazoo River, heavily contaminated with PCBs), and he needs to be directly involved.

"There's nothing wrong with that," he said.

Chester said far more has been done on cleaning up dioxin in the past four years, under pressure from the state, than in the previous 20.

Getting to the truth

In her suit, whistleblower Denney said the independent laboratory double-checking the dioxin results told her in November 2006 that the data from Dow's contractor was badly flawed.

Denney told her bosses. A week later, they ordered her to stop doing any work relating to the data validation.

The lab rejected the data in a letter Dec. 5, 2006, saying it couldn't validate it.

On Dec. 8, the lab sent Dow a letter terminating its contract, citing a breakdown in procedures. Denney's suit said Dow submitted the bad data to the DEQ in February.

"She's been shut out," said Victor Mastromarco Jr., Denney's attorney.

The suit claims that Dow silenced Denney by removing her from data validation and "made sure she wouldn't be an obstacle to the submission of unvalidated data to the DEQ."

Jennifer Heronema, spokeswoman for Dow, said Denney is wrong and was not demoted.

Dow hired an independent consultant this year, after it turned the results in to the DEQ, to review Denney's claims.

The consultant identified no issues that would affect the quality or reliability of the data, Heronema said. Peter Simon, president of ATS Inc., the contractor, said Thursday his lab is certified, and quality assurance for the project met or exceeded state and federal standards.

Chester said Wednesday the DEQ asked Dow for its raw data and more information on how it was validated. He said Denney's allegations are serious.

"Right now, we have no reason to believe the data is wrong," he said. "We want to double check and to see that the data we've based decisions on was right."

Contact TINA LAM at 313-222-6421 or tlam@freepress.com.

 
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