A room of about 80 people fell silent Thursday night when former U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Mary A. Gade called into question
the need for a new approach to dioxin cleanup in local waterways.
At a meeting hosted by the EPA and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Gade questioned those agencies' negotiations with The Dow Chemical Co. to create a Superfund Alternative Approach for the cleanup of the Tittabawassee River, Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay.
Gade said processes already in place have led to cleanup work on the rivers after decades of inaction. She believes the new negotiations could lead to delays in work when Dow already was paying to do actual cleanup work.
"There is an existing process," she said. "So the issue is taking up time and wasting resources, and I'm not sure why."
Gade left the EPA last May, stating her departure was caused by political pressure from EPA headquarters surrounding her handling of the Dow dioxin site.
Frank Ruswick, MDEQ senior policy adviser, said the current processes being used to force cleanup were not designed to provide solutions for such a large area. Entering a Superfund approach would not eliminate Dow's requirements under its state permits, but would allow those requirements to be more quickly met, he said.
"We're not doing anything that is completely new," he said. "It's something we envisioned might be beneficial."
Ruswick said the Superfund option is the best tool available for cleanup, and that's why the change in processes is now being sought.
"It also has to do with the relationship between the agencies," he added, indicating a change in cooperation since Gade left her post.
Wendy Carney, an EPA Superfund program manager, said new data gathered in the past year has given a better picture of the cleanup work that is needed. She said in negotiations with Dow, the EPA hopes to clean certain areas, stabilize banks and develop sediment traps. The goal is to see cleanup actions under the Superfund approach starting in 2010, with work this year taking place under existing processes.
Mary Logan, EPA remedial project manager, said working through the EPA allows the government to recoup costs associated with the project. The agency recently issued its first bill to Dow, which amounted to $1.8 million. If the state handled cleanup, it cannot get back all of the costs and might not be able to hire the experts needed to complete work, she said.
Lone Tree Council member Terry Miller called into question the EPA taking the lead on cleanup, citing a March 2008 letter from Dow Executive Vice President David Kepler to an EPA assistant administrator in Washington, D.C.
In the letter, Kepler wrote that Dow disagreed with the EPA's decision at that time to rely on state programs for the cleanup, preferring instead the federal government's Superfund program for coordinating cleanup efforts.
"The Rivers and Bay would receive the benefit of national program management, expertise and guidance, and the State program could focus its more limited resources on addressing issues in the City of Midland and on the Dow Plant site," Kepler wrote.
Miller said after the letter was sent, Gade was forced out, the state handed the issue to Ruswick and now officials are proposing exactly what Dow requested in the letter.
"It's right under this paragraph from this vice president from Dow Chemical," Miller said. "We fear we're being puppets on a string."
Gade went further, stating the company has threatened to leave.
"I know that Dow Chemical has threatened to leave the state; I've spoken with Gov. (Jennifer) Granholm a little over a year ago," she said.
Dow officials did not attend the meeting because it was designed for the EPA and MDEQ to communicate with the public and therefore couldn't comment on Gade's claim, Dow spokeswoman Mary Draves said.
She said entering the Superfund approach provides the best coordination of the work as Dow moves forward with its cleanup efforts.
"The process that we're going to now is used by the EPA all around the country and it's the standard that's used. It's not something that's really novel," she said. "There's been frustrations all the way around and series of events in the past. We're looking at this process, as we're moving forward, as a good thing because we're all talking and it's really our best hope moving forward with a resolution, and that's what we're working on."
Draves said the company is committed to working to resolving the issue.
"We want it to be successful," she said. "We're following their process they've asked us to go through and we continue to have discussions with that."
Others at the meeting said a solution is needed that looks at the scientific evidence. Among them was Saginaw businessman Peter Shaheen, who pointed out that Dow has spent tens of millions of dollars already investigating and cleaning the river systems.
He urged the agencies to find a solution that satisfies the need of the environment without driving the area's major employer out of the community.
Dow retiree Etcyl Blair said dioxins have been shown in studies to not be as toxic as some people would claim.
"We are wasting public money on an issue that should not even be an issue," he said.
Some area township supervisors also spoke, calling for the cleanup process to be completed so the area can move on.
Negotiations on the Superfund approach could continue until March 15 if a 30 day extension is given, after which a public comment period would occur, according to EPA officials. Details on how long that process would last and what it would consist of are unknown.
After that time, the EPA could approve the settlement agreement with Dow or go back to negotiations if changes needed to be made. If approved, Logan said the EPA would work to smoothly transition cleanup efforts.
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.