Residents of the dioxin-polluted Tittabawassee flood plain are weary of waiting for state agencies or The Dow Chemical Co. to do something about the contamination. Twenty-six filed a class-action complaint against Dow Tuesday in Saginaw County Circuit Court.
The suit seeks to represent about 2,000 people who have lived in the flood plain since January 1984.
Plaintiffs believe that their property has been devalued and their health put at risk by historic dioxin deposited by Dow into the river.
They hope a jury will decide that Dow should pay the pre-dioxin-discovery value of the property, pay punitive damages and set up a medical monitoring trust to cover future diagnosis of dioxin poisoning and treatments for residents exposed to the dioxin.
"We really think Dow should step up to the plate," said Jan P. Helder, the Kansas City-based attorney representing the group. "If they donít, weíll make them. This case is about holding them accountable. The time for talk and delay is over."
In 2002, families living along the Tittabawassee River and its flood plain were notified by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality that the soil in their backyards was contaminated with dioxin. The lawsuit contends that Dow was negligent in its handling and disposal of dioxin, resulting in levels as high as 7,300 parts per trillion. The stateís residential cleanup standard is 90 parts per trillion.
The dioxin has been traced to Dow waste discharges into the river between 1915 and 1937.
Dow has acknowledged its responsibility for the contamination. Two state agreements, one in 1985 that was the result of an exchange for building a boat launch, and another in 1997, deemed Dow released from all claims and action related to discharge of dioxins into the river.
DEQ spokespeople have said it is unknown if the two documents will affect liability.
"They donít relieve Dow Chemical of any liability they might have under federal law," Andrew Hogarth of the DEQ said.
Last year, Dow attempted a deal with the MDEQ that would have raised allowable dioxin contamination levels ninefold in Midland. The deal, which included an offer to fund a health study of the effects of dioxin along the plain, fell apart in December.
Dow, in a statement issued Tuesday, said it continues to work with the state and community. It warned that homeowners should not be alarmed by the suit and that there has been no evidence that property values have been affected.
"As a member of the Tri-Counties for many years," the statement continued, "we are, and have been, fully committed to the health and environment of this community. Itís unfortunate that litigation could hurt what should be a collaborative process with all residents, elected officials, and any company involved."
Helder expects Dow to respond to the suit in about 30 days. The wait for a jury trial could be as long as two years, he said.
He does not expect Dow will be interested in settling out of court.