Saturday, December 14, 2002

Environmental groups seek to block relaxed dioxin standards for Dow

State proposal would allow 9 times the current contamination standards for the chemical giant

By Mike Tyree / Associated Press


TRAVERSE CITY -- A state agency and Dow Chemical Co. have proposed a deal that could allow the chemical giant to largely avoid cleaning up dioxin contamination caused by its Midland manufacturing plant.

Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, headed by outgoing Director Russell Harding, hopes to ink a deal with Dow before Jan. 1, the day Democratic Gov.-elect Jennifer Granholm replaces Republican Gov. John Engler.

Dioxins are highly toxic byproducts of Dow's manufacturing and incineration systems and may cause cancer and other health problems in humans.

The proposed deal, a corrective action consent order, would allow Dow to operate under site specific guidelines for soil dioxin contamination that are nine times more liberal than current standards, according to government documents and DEQ officials.

Preliminary tests show much of the dioxin contamination around the Dow plant falls between the current 90 parts per trillion standard and the 831 parts per trillion figure arrived at by Dow and DEQ staff, a DEQ official said.

Relaxed dioxin standards would save Dow millions in potential cleanup costs, a DEQ spokeswoman said. A Dow spokesman said it's too soon to speculate on potential cleanup costs.

Dow is Midland's primary industry and employs 6,000 people at its manufacturing plant and world headquarters sites there. The company paid $23 million in local taxes in 2001, company spokeswoman Holly LaRose-Roenicke said.

Some state and federal officials say a rush to close the deal is a bad idea.

So do environmental groups, which have filed suit to stop it. An Ingham County judge declined to issue a restraining order against the proposed DEQ-Dow deal, but set a Jan. 6 hearing to review the case.

"The agreement is illegal because there's no basis in the law for raising the dioxin standard almost 10 times. There is no rational basis for what they're doing," said Traverse City attorney Christopher Bzdok, who represents the environmental groups. "Dow and DEQ leadership are in bed together."

Harding would not comment on the proposed deal, DEQ spokeswoman Patricia Spitzley said. Engler's office referred questions to the DEQ.

John Phillips, Dow's senior community health project leader, said the company's the rush to sign an agreement before Engler leaves office is based on "the desire to get on with the work outlined in the consent order."

"The exposure and health study (in the order) is the prime focus, the ultimate answer as to whether or not there's any (connection) to dioxin in soils and public health," Phillips said.

Jim Sygo, DEQ chief of the remediation and redevelopment division, defended the deal, saying proposed site-specific standards sought by Dow fall within the law.

"Does everybody in (DEQ) agree with it? No. I know a lot of internal staff don't agree with it," he said.

"If your boss tells you to do something, what do you do?" Sygo said. "We have deadlines. (Harding) asked us to get this done before the end of the year."

The Michigan attorney general's office also has reservations. State attorneys in October twice told DEQ officials via e-mail that the proposed agreement was illegal.

"In my opinion, the document is fatally flawed and DEQ cannot legally bind itself in the manner the agreement contemplates," wrote assistant attorney general Michael Leffler in an e-mail to DEQ officials.

"We will, of course, work with DEQ to assist in drafting a lawful agreement, but any such agreement will have (to) be profoundly different from the one I received."

DEQ officials subsequently hired an outside attorney to help with the proposed consent order.

The attorneys general's office is scheduled to meet with Dow and DEQ officials next Friday to review the consent order, said spokesman Greg Bird.

"We will give our legal opinions and advice to our client (DEQ) and we trust they will take that advice," Bird said. "We have no reason to believe they will not take that advice."

Sygo said the consent order is a step toward requiring Dow to conduct studies that could lead to cleanup efforts.

"I think it's in the interest of trying to move that forward," he said. "Dow wants to know what its obligations are."