Sediment traps are not rocket science

At the July 19th EPA public meeting, EPA was asked about the ongoing failure to place sediments traps in the river system to mitigate the migration of contaminated sediments to Saginaw Bay. EPA stated the delay is because the agency does not want to do it wrong. There is no doubt the sentiment is true even if it is a red herring.

EPA Superfund division took over on this site early this year but it is a disservice to many people to ignore the facts, issues and efforts of the past several years to make the traps a reality. EPA Superfund does not have a clean slate on which a new narrative can be written. The past several years matter. Significant time, taxpayer’s money, resources and effort have been expended on these traps. Had this issue been pursued on its merit, absent the politics, we would not be having this conversation today.

By way of history the sediment traps conversations goes back to 2005 with regard to Dow corrective action— However, the Corp of Engineers completed a fairly detailed analysis in 2001.

With increase traffic on the river as a result of dredging and the actual dredging itself we are likely seeing greater migration of sediments to the Saginaw Bay. These sediments carry high levels of dioxin/furans and many other contaminants. MDEQ and EPA acknowledge that ship propellers re-suspend sediments perhaps as much as the actual dredging. The agencies also know that high concentrations of dioxin-laden soils inhabit the eroding banks of the Tittabawassee River, just biding their time until they become suspended sediments headed to Saginaw Bay. Still no sediment traps.

In 2007, EPA and MDEQ stated there was enough information on bed load movement of high levels to justify the traps. Bed loads are the sediments moving freely at the bottom of the river. Also it was EPA’s position that studies done by the Natural Resource Damages Trustees demonstrated that there was enough information on sediment movement to merit preceding with sediment trap implementation. Dow did a lengthy study on sediment traps and presented it to the community in August of 2008. The Corp of Engineers completed a study in 2001. Some trials were done at the turning basins. MDEQ has articulated at public meetings how the traps would work ( link below). The bed loads moving freely were more contaminated than the suspended sediments in the water column and the heavy sand like material in the bed load could be captured by sediment traps: And yet there are still no sediment traps.

EPA insisted in the summer of 2007 that MDEQ enforce RCRA and impose the sediment traps and sediment removals as an interim response activity to stop the migration of sediments to Saginaw Bay. In August 2007 EPA wrote MDEQ:

U.S. EPA requests that MDEQ require Dow to promptly initiate one or more Interim Response Actions (lRAs) to address the downstream migration of contaminants from Dow’s facility to the Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron. In particular, EPA requests that MDEQ require Dow to design and construct one or more sediment traps in the Saginaw and/or Tittabawassee River. The Agency requests that MDEQ, pursuant to Part XI.G of Dow’s June 12, 2003 Hazardous Waste Management Facility Operating License Dow, determine that such IRAs are necessary and require Dow to complete these IRAs on or before December 31, 2008. (US EPA to MDEQ August 2007)

Here we are 3 years later and the agencies are still negotiating, talking, and pondering the implementation of these traps, even though "heavy" sediment loadings from the Saginaw River to the Saginaw Bay are listed as impairment in every relevant document beginning with the initial RAP in the 1980’s. Note in EPA’s letter that they (EPA) wanted traps in place by the end of 2008. Not sure why EPA was confident in 2007 that the traps could be done correctly, were viable and timely but not so today.

In that August 2007 communication EPA also stated:

As a result, the Agency requests that MDEQ issue a Notice of Deficiency to Dow requiring Dow to revise and re-submit the SRB SOW including a provision committing Dow to complete a full characterization of the Saginaw River & Floodplain and the Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron AOCs on or before December 31, 2008.

(All that characterization we are waiting to be negotiated with EPA could have been done by now)

Why the delay in the sediment traps ( and characterization)? Political interference on this site cannot be overstated. Dow repeatedly submitted deficient and inadequate work plans beginning in December 2003 and hitting a pinnacle during 2007. Dow’s work plans in 2007 included sediment traps and characterization of the Saginaw River and Bay. But with all those engineers, scientist and lawyer the company just couldn’t get it right. Finally in 2008, keenly aware that the constant delays were holding up work and delaying time lines including the sediment traps, MDEQ took it upon themselves to modify Dow’s work plans. With modifications in place and EPA’s blessing, MDEQ approved Dow’s work plans for the Saginaw River and Bay, which included implementation of sediment traps. These were referred to as the Scopes of Work for the Saginaw River and Bay.

However, Dow was not going to be told to put in sediment traps or to initiate further evaluation of the Saginaw River and Bay. Sampling and locating hot spots has always been the driver on this issue. It’s a public relations problem that Dow cannot spin. So why would they want to find high levels as it’s bad PR and would cost Dow money to clean it up. Dow was also upset with EPA Region V’s support of MDEQ rewriting the work plans.

Not to be pushed around by MDEQ, Dow not only filed suit in circuit court, the company went to EPA HQ’s behind Region V’s back. On retainer for Dow was Steven Herman former head of EPA office of Enforcement and Tom Skinner former EPA Interim Regional Administrator.

In March 2008, one month after MDEQ rewrote Dow’s work plan, Dow asked EPA HQ to take over from MDEQ. MDEQ and the Region V Administrator sent a letter to Dow rejecting Dow’s proposal for an EPA takeover. The Region V administrator (Mary Gade) was fired that May.

Lone Tree Council was informed in the summer of 2008 by MDEQ administration that EPA would be taking over and that even though MDEQ was on solid legal ground to challenge Dow in the their suit, it would not happen. According to MDEQ administration, Dow had again sent their lobbyists to the governor and per Governor Granholm MDEQ would be prohibited from challenging Dow Chemical in court for the sediment traps as well as characterization of the river and bay. Lone Tree Council was admonished to accept the " political reality".

Even though there is lack of political will on the part of EPA and MDEQ to protect Saginaw Bay it is agonizingly worth noting that EPA and DEQ have always had the legal authority under Part 201 of Act 451 to impose sediment traps as an interim response activity to protect public health and the environment. Dow’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA 2003) operating license, which Dow signed in 2003 states:

The licensee shall conduct interim response activities (IRA) at the facility, as defined in R 299.9103(q), and/or beyond the facility boundary, if determined necessary by the licensee or the Chief of the Waste and Hazardous Materials Division, to clean up or remove a released contaminant or to take other actions, prior to the implementation of a remedial action, as may be necessary to prevent, minimize, or mitigate injury to the public health, safety, or welfare, or to the environment.

The truth is they are not in place because of politics, political capitulation and Dow’s refusal. As much as the good folks in the agencies try to do what is right, it is always the politics outside the public view, at much higher levels, that guide activities on this site. Frankly it has been Dow’s recalcitrance and political strong-arming that has allowed the continual migration of sediments to the Bay. The responsible thing for Dow would have been to:

Honor their license agreement

Implement the sediment traps to protect Saginaw Bay.

Lone Tree Council views these sediment traps as a high priority on par with public health protection. It has been Lone Tree position that this slowing down this loading be a priority for the agencies. We are still waiting.

As always, Lone Tree Council stands by its posts and history of this site. We are always willing to share our volumes of letters, communications and documents if requested.

Source: Lone Tree Council 080810

For additional articles like this one, go to the Tittabawassee River Watch web site for complete coverage of the Tittabawassee River Dow Chemical dioxin contamination saga.. The source organization's web site link is listed above. The Newspaper / Media page of our site contains an extensive archive of media articles dating back to January 2002. The Newspaper / Media page may be accessed by scrolling down to the bottom of the CONTENTS section and clicking on the Newspaper/Media link.