A toxic fight over dioxin

Saginaw News Editorial

Sunday, December 15, 2002

First the state was dilatory in reporting a dioxin problem along the Tittabawassee River, creating suspicions that it was hiding a potential health risk.

Then the Department of Environmental Quality heightened suspicions when it proposed raising dioxin cleanup standards to 831 parts per trillion from 90 ppt. And its private meetings with Dow Chemical officials, resulting in an agreement to ease cleanup standards, were roundly criticized by downriver residents and environmental activists.

Now the federal Environmental Protection Agency has weighed in with its criticism of the proposed rule change, adding to the series of missteps by the state and giving citizens additional ammunition to question its handling of the dioxin controversy.

Yet the state intends to push forward with the new standards, vowing to put them in place before Gov. John Engler leaves office Jan. 1. That will only increase the distrust and rhetoric that the state is in league with the Midland-based chemical giant.

Property owners along the river, particularly downriver from Midland, and the region's environmental image are the biggest losers if the controversy continues. DEQ Director Russ Harding and the Engler administration should step back from the deal since the suspicions created by its agreement with Dow are making it difficult to have a debate based on sound science.

We urge everyone involved to not let their emotions drive the debate. Rhetoric by some environmentalists that the Engler administration was trying to "salt the earth" are hardly helpful if the goal is to find common ground and eliminate the health risk in soil along the river. The state should make every effort to avoid a prolonged court battle that works at odds with a cleanup effort, if it proves necessary.

As the suspected source of the contamination, Dow should have spot at the table.

But so should citizens. The health issues surrounding dioxin contamination are complicated; fears stem from the uncertainty over the level of health risks. The public is far from reassured that the state is acting in its best interest, and the continual public relations missteps -- some are calling it arrogance -- aren't helping.

The EPA's critical report last week seems to support the contention that the state is moving too fast.

It's time to slow down and let cooler heads prevail in a toxic fight that's turned toxic.