DEQ backs down

Friday, December 27, 2002

The state Department of Environmental Quality, facing an avalanche of public criticism as well as questions from the state Attorney General's Office and Environmental Protection Agency, reluctantly deep-sixed a deal late last week with Dow Chemical Co. that would have raised dioxin cleanup standards at its Midland operations.

A lawsuit by environmental groups that sought to block the agreement between the DEQ and Dow also undoubtedly played into the decision to set the consent order aside.

Scientists disagree over how much health risk dioxin poses. And like so many environmental hazards rooted in historical ignorance, there's always the chance that stirring up the toxins will create additional problems. Think asbestos and the myriad lawsuits that have sprung from its use in buildings.

The DEQ failed to give an adequate explanation for its plan to raise the dioxin cleanup standard to 831 parts per trillion from the current standard of 90 parts per trillion. Its handling of the dioxin controversy in the Tittabawassee floodplain, particularly down river from Dow's Midland operations, has raised more questions than answers. The DEQ's push to approve the agreement with Dow before Gov. Engler left office only added to suspicions that public health was secondary to business considerations.

A week ago, we urged the state to slow down and asked that emotions not drive the debate. But emotions -- rather than sound science and careful deliberations -- will drive the debate if there's even the hint that the state isn't completely forthcoming with citizens. The DEQ's credibility is at stake unless it positions itself as the fair arbiter between the public and other interests involved.

Citizens shouldn't have to resort to alarming rhetoric and lawsuits to reassure themselves that an agency charged with protecting the environment is acting in the public's best interests. Call it the cardinal lesson of Government 101: Citizen trust.