|Saginaw River dioxin find spreads
Discovery of high levels of toxin have residents worried that outdoor activities put them at risk.
Friday, November 23, 2007
Francis X. Donnelly / The Detroit News
SAGINAW -- At the spot where two rivers join to form the Saginaw River, clumps of cattails and bald cypress share the sandy shores with deer and raccoon tracks.
For years, this scenic tableau has filled riverside residents such as Mitch Larson with dread.
The reason became clear last week when the river confluence yielded something never conceived by nature: toxic dioxin.
The chemical, dumped into the Tittabawassee River by Dow Chemical Co. a century ago, had been discovered in other parts of the streams but never in this quantity, a federal agency said.
Not even close.
Larson worries about the health of his four daughters as he wonders whether this is the price Michigan residents pay for the state's industrial past.
"My daughters were raised out there," said the autoworker, 50, who lives 300 yards from the latest hot spot. "I'm worried for their children."
Traveling along two rivers, the dangerous chemical cuts a 44-mile swath through central Michigan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.
Residents who once loved their proximity to the rivers now fear it.
They worry how the simplest outdoor activity may have exposed them to the carcinogen -- fishing, swimming, gardening, cutting the grass.
Dioxin clings to dirt, so sometimes it creeps all the way into homes, state studies have found.
In Midland, the headquarters of Dow Chemical looks like a city-sized erector set.
It's three square miles of tanks, pipes and pumps. Dow, one of the biggest chemical manufacturers, makes or made Styrofoam, Saran Wrap, a wide array of plastics and, at one time, Agent Orange, an herbicide used in Vietnam.
The company spewed dioxin into the air or dumped it into the Tittabawassee River for half a century, Dow said. The chemical is a byproduct of the manufacture of chemicals and pesticides.
"At the time, the waste management approach was to release byproducts into the river," Dow spokesman John Musser said.
"That's not unique to Dow. We've learned a lot in the years since."
The toxin flowed 22 miles to Saginaw, entered the Saginaw River and moved another 22 miles past Bay City into the Saginaw Bay.
Moving by air and water, the long-lasting substance settled into the soil and river bottom.
The contaminant damages livers, weakens immune systems and affects reproduction, EPA studies have found.
"It's one of the most toxic chemicals ever evaluated by the EPA or any agency," said Milton Clark, senior health adviser in EPA's regional office in Chicago. "It has very high cancer potency."
Part of the issue is that the state and federal government have vastly different standards for what is an acceptable level of dioxin. State action is triggered by readings of 90 parts per trillion; federal action is triggered at 1,000 parts per trillion, a level Dow insists is more reasonable.
Still, widespread water sampling in recent years has found spots that far exceed even federal standards.
Before last week, the heaviest dose of dioxin found in the Saginaw River was 32,000 parts per trillion. The heaviest in the Tittabawassee was 87,000 parts per trillion.
The amount discovered last week near Wickes Park in the Saginaw River was 1.6 million parts per trillion.
River meanders past homes
Outside the gates of the Dow complex in Midland, the Tittabawassee is an unassuming presence: shallow and 50 yards wide.
Last year, Dow discovered three dioxin hot spots along the river within six miles of its property. The company has cleaned up two and will finish the third soon.
In Freeland, the south-moving stream passes many homes, including Kathy Henry's.
Her three acres of gently rolling hills contain a level of dioxin that's a dozen times higher than the state standard.
"It's been devastating," she said. "It's not a way for a resident to live."
Henry, 49, goes outside as little as possible. When she cuts the grass, she wears a dust mask and showers afterward.
Generations of families have lived along the water. While older family members frolicked there, newer ones fear their backyards.
South of Freeland is Imerman Memorial Park, whose 96 acres contains hiking trails, picnic pavilions, canoe rentals, a fishing dock and boat launch.
Given the picturesque surroundings, the park packs a jarring welcome.
"Contamination Advisory," reads a sign. "Avoid contact with soil and river sediment due to dioxin contamination. Use soap and water."
Poor in Saginaw hit worst
If dioxin is one of the costs of heavy manufacturing in Michigan, the poor are bearing a disproportionate share.
The pollutants leave Midland, a tidy city that benefits from the largesse of Dow, and move toward Saginaw, whose median household income is half of Midland's.
For Saginaw residents such as Howard Steinmetz, a riverside home was a status symbol. Now it's an albatross.
Steinmetz, 75, struggled to cobble together enough money to buy a plot along the river. When he finally did so in the late 1960s, he liked to walk along the banks, fantasizing what his new house would look like.
Now he's trying to unload his dream home. But nobody wants it.
"I feel helpless," he said about his dioxin-befouled yard. "I feel abused."
And he feels sick. He has two types of cancer: prostate cancer and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
His wife, Barbara, 70, has stomach cancer, and two daughters struggled with infertility.
The family believes their health problems are connected with the dioxin that has been discovered in their bodies.
"I'm not sure when the sword of Damocles will fall," Barbara Steinmetz said.
Others aren't worried.
On Sunday, less than a week after news about the dioxin, half a dozen motorboats circled the spot where the chemical was found.
They weren't scientists or federal regulators or Dow officials.
They were fishermen.
You can reach Francis X. Donnelly at (313) 223-4186 or email@example.com.
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