Last May U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Director Lisa Jackson called Dow Chemical’s contamination of the Saginaw River watershed a threat to human health, and pledged swift action to address it.

But the cleanup framework finalized between EPA and Dow last month leaves Dow in charge of designing the investigation of the contamination and its cleanup — a move that counters suggestions by one expert retained by EPA to comment on the agreement and worries locals who have watched Dow delay this work for decades.

mimsg_dowontittabawasseeriver-300x193Dioxin, a highly toxic byproduct of the chemical manufacturing process, has contaminated 52 miles of watershed, and has spread from Dow’s Midland facility, down the Tittabawassee and Saginaw Rivers and into Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay.

In his response to the proposed EPA agreement with Dow, environmental consultant Dr. Peter DeFur stated that control of the cleanup was an issue of concern.

Under the proposed [Administrative Order on Consent], Dow will have control over designing the investigation and the cleanup with EPA approval. An alternative is that EPA could take responsibility for the initial investigation and then be reimbursed by Dow. EPA could hire contractors to conduct all of the preliminary investigations to gather data, decide if any areas require immediate soil removal and develop remedial alternatives. Dow could then step in and finish the cleanup.

EPA chose not to incorporate this suggestion into its agreement with Dow.

The first step, according to the new plan for the long-stalled cleanup, is for Dow to use the currently available data to come up with a list of “areas of potential acute or near-term exposure risks.”

Officials say that the goal is to have clean up work begun on those high-risk areas by the end of the year. But not everyone trusts Dow to do a good job of assessing the pollution it caused.

In 2007 Priscilla Denney, a Dow engineer who was in charge of ensuring the quality of data from toxin sampling in the Titabawassee floodplain, sued the company in Saginaw Circuit court, claiming that she was demoted and punished for standing in the way of the company submitting bad sampling data to the state.

Denney claimed that Dow submitted bad sampling data to both the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA.

That case was dismissed by the circuit court but is under appeal in the state Court of Appeals, and Denney’s claims have made some locals wary of Dow’s practices in the floodplain.

Dow has also invested millions in the University of Michigan Dioxin Exposure Study (UMDES) that has been used to downplay the dangers of living on contaminated soil, and the company has repeatedly stated that the pollution poses no imminent threat to residents.

Does EPA expect Dow to find exposure hazards even though it has repeatedly stated residents are not threatened by the pollution?

“The recently finalized agreement outlines a systematic and comprehensive approach to completing our understanding of the river system,” Dow spokeswoman Mary Draves said in an e-mail. “The information will then serve as a basis for decisions and actions that may be needed in the future. We can’t speculate as to what these will be.”

Draves added, “The University of Michigan Dioxin Exposure Study confirms that living on contaminated soil does not affect people’s blood dioxin level.”

This claim, though often repeated, is not true. The study did find higher blood dioxin levels among people living on soil with dioxin contamination of more than 1,000 parts per trillion. It also found higher levels in the blood of people whose gardens and flower beds are contaminated.

The U-M study has also been criticized by DEQ and EPA officials because it did not focus on the most highly contaminated areas and did not take into account exposure to children who play on contaminated soils or exposure faced by people who eat fish from the contaminated watershed.

The cumulative risk faced by residents who have had long term exposure to Dow’s chemicals because of contamination on their property is another element that Peter DeFur stated should be factored into the EPA order with Dow. It was not.

People who live in the most contaminated areas have reservations about the current approach.

Betty Damore, a 62 year long Tittabawassee floodplain resident, said that she objects to a piecemeal approach to cleaning up the river, even though her yard is known to be among the highly contaminated areas.

The Tittabawassee River floods regularly, depositing chemical laden sediments on properties within the floodplain.

“I think the whole 52 miles of contaminated rivers and lakes, the entire area is the hot spot,“ she said. “The entire river system has to be cleaned up before this can be resolved.”

Damore said that Dow, which recently announced an uptick in profits, has failed to act as a good corporate citizen by addressing the company’s contamination in a timely way.

“It is going to be dragging on till well beyond 2018,“ she said. “I feel that they get an F in terms of clean up. They are only doing it because of DEQ and EPA pressure.”

“As I get older I see younger people coming in, I worry about these little kids that are going back where there is contamination and they are playing in the ditch.”

Floodplain resident John Taylor says he feels that EPA is not giving proper consideration to the people whose homes and yards have been contaminated by Dow.

Taylor said that he is upset that Dow will play a role in identifying areas that need to be cleaned up.

“I think it stinks. I think they have probably manipulated control of EPA just like they did DEQ. Nobody is addressing people who live along the river.”

Taylor said that his family’s health and the health of his neighbors has suffered as a result of Dow’s contamination, but “EPA has pretty much just put me on ignore. I spent a whole year talking to them and I been lied to, deceived, and betrayed.”

Cleaning up the river and taking care of the people who have been affected by the pollution are separate matters, Taylor said. It’s going to take decades to clean up the river, meanwhile, he said, people in his neighborhood are getting sick and even dying because of the toxins.

Taylor said that Dow’s political power has kept EPA from making the area an official Superfund site and blocked taking necessary actions to protect residents from the company’s pollution.

EPA recently set an interim dioxin cleanup level at 72 parts per trillion.

“My property is in the 3,000 range,“ Taylor said, “We get nothing.”

“I am being used as a lever,” he said, “not treated as a victim.”