FREELAND — Walleye Fest in this Saginaw County village is advertised on the state’s Pure Michigan tourism Web site as a three-day event “celebrating all things walleye.” But any visitors who had planned on checking out the fishing celebration or those who showed up to this past weekend’s event sponsored by Dow Chemical probably wouldn’t have have known that the Tittabawassee River and the fish coming out of it contain dangerous levels of toxins.
There are no visible signs of danger along the bucolic river, which attracts anglers from across the region. Only a few posted signs that hint of the danger in the water.
Although a plaque mounted near the fishing dock in Freeland’s Festival Park acknowledges that Dow Chemical is partially responsible for some of the improvements made to the dock in 2005, it makes no mention of the fact that the changes were mandated by the state as a way of reducing the public health threat posed by dioxins that have spread downstream from Dow’s Midland facility, the source of dioxin contamination that reaches all the way into Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay.
In 2007, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality wrote to Tittabawassee Township officials urging them to post fish consumption advisories and to take steps to limit public exposure to contaminated sediments that can accumulate on the fishing dock:
The major concern is that the fishing platform is frequently flooded, resulting in the deposition of highly contaminated sediments on its surface. People using the platform after a high water event would be directly exposed to the contaminated sediment.
Dioxin is highly toxic and causes cancer and disruption of the endocrine, reproductive and immune systems and interferes with fetal development. The state requires clean up of dioxin contamination at 90 parts per trillion — levels as high as 5,000 parts per trillion have been detected in Freeland Festival Park, where much of this weekend’s activities took place.
But on Saturday afternoon during a break between rain showers, Lori and Joe Butters of Midland, along with their children and grandchildren, stood on the park’s fishing dock, celebrating the warm spring weather and the beginning of walleye season.
Some members of the family were barefoot on the partially flooded dock. One of the Butters’ grand-daughters even complained that her feet were burning.
Lori Butters said she was unaware of the state’s fish consumption advisory. The official warning, updated last year, cautions children and pre-menopausal women to strictly limit their consumption of fish from the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers and to eat no walleye larger than 18 inches.
But Butters said that she once saw a news report on the area’s CBS affiliate, WNEM-TV, that a person could eat 5 lbs. of fish at one sitting.
“We eat it outta here, the grandkids eat it outta here. They love fish. We eat all kinds.”
Butters pointed to 15-year old Zack Prince, who was packing up his fishing gear after catching four large walleye, said to be 18-22 inches in length, from the river bank.
“He’s taking them home,” she said. “He’s going to eat them.”
Dow’s presence, up and down the river
The walleye festival featured a fishing tournament and a $1,000 prize for the angler who brought in the most weight for ten walleye. This year’s winner brought in nearly 50 lbs. of fish. The Saginaw News reported that by the close of the tournament on Sunday afternoon, more than 2,800 lbs. of fish were weighed in.
In the Tittabawasee Township Park, near Freeland’s Festival Park, a picnic pavilion adorned with a Dow Chemical sponsorship banner served as the weigh-in station for the tournament.
At a nearby pond, families with children gathered for the junior fishing competition.
A sign posted near the pond announced that the fish were for catch and release only and contact with the water is prohibited at all times. The state fish consumption advisory was not posted.
Richard Williams said his family came to Walleye Fest from Mount Pleasant because last year, his 9-year-old daughter caught a 12 1/2-inch rainbow trout in the junior fishing tournament and won a new fishing pole and tackle box.
Williams said that he’s aware that the river is contaminated. “Dow owns property on both sides of the river and so they figure they can contaminate our river,” he said. “Dow should give more money to the [Department of Natural Resources] to set up fishing ponds for kids.”
Although he said he was not aware of the state fish advisory’s details, Williams said he would not eat any fish from rivers south of Midland. But one of Williams’ relatives said he thought eating walleye was safe. “I’ve been doing it all my life and I haven’t grown gills,” he said.
Over at the local Chevrolet dealership, the Freeland Lions Club was hosting a Walleye Fest “Texas Hold ‘Em” poker tournament, and the attached Walleye Festival “Phish Tent” was empty save for those manning the beer taps for the poker players. Heavy rain poured off the tent, creating small rivers in the parking lot.
One man in a Lions Club polo shirt said that he was a life-long Freeland resident and said that he agreed with the message proclaimed in the unofficial “Dioxins My Ass” Walleye Fest hat, something that illustrates the broad local skepticism of the dioxin dangers. The hats have been a hot commodity.
The man, who refused to identify himself, said that he had been concerned about the river contamination until joining the Lions Club where he listened to a presentation by a researcher working on a Michigan State University study of Tittabawassee River wildlife that was funded by Dow Chemical. After the researcher’s talk, he no longer felt that dioxin was a problem and said that media reports were blowing the contamination risk out of proportion.
The 16-page walleye festival guide distributed at the weekend event contained no mention of the state’s fish advisory. Its entire back cover was an advertisement for Bay Fest, another Dow-sponsored fishing event scheduled for late May in Bay City.
Officials step-up risk communication
In response to concerns about the need for expanded local outreach efforts on the risks of eating local fish from the Saginaw River watershed, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has funded a state health education program that will begin in May. As Walleye Fest began on Friday, the agency announced as an interim step that the Saginaw County Department of Public Health would distribute fish consumption advisories to festival goers.
Bridget Richards, senior environmental health specialist with the Saginaw Department of Public Health said that on Friday her department dropped off fliers with information about the state fish consumption advisory at the festival’s fish fry held at the Freeland Sports Zone fitness center. Ocean pollock, not local fish, was served at the fish fry.
On Saturday more fliers were left at a pancake breakfast at the Memorial Park building.
“I think this is the first time that we did do that,” Richards said.
Kory Groetsch, a toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Community Health, said in an interview last week that health officials have historically been unable to rely on festival organizers for help in distributing fish contamination advisories.
Last week, Michigan Messenger reported that the state and Dow reached an impasse in negotiations over the chemical company paying for increased fish advisory signage. Dow has refused to pay for the signs, just as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has warned there aren’t enough advisories posted.
“I am not aware of anything further that we will be doing on this,” Mary Draves, a spokeswoman for Dow, said in an interview last week.