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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Saginaw

Air Date: Week of March 15, 2002

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Living on Earth Science Editor Diane Toomey speaks with host Steve Curwood about dioxin found downstream from the Dow Chemical Company in Saginaw, Michigan. Some environmentalists there argue that the state may have tried to cover up the discovery of the contamination. Part one of a two-part series.

Transcript

CURWOOD: Welcome to Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Back in 1995, the state of Michigan began testing for dioxin in the area around Dow Chemical's headquarters in Midland. Dioxins make up a group of more than 200 chemicals that have been linked to such health problems as cancer, birth defects, disruption of hormone and immune systems. The state did find elevated levels of dioxin on company grounds, as well as in nearby playgrounds and parks and a federal study was made of possible health effects, but little has been done to clean up the contamination. A few months ago, advocates led by the Michigan Environmental Council used the Freedom of Information Act to try to get some data. And so far, what they've found is sparking a lot of controversy. Living on Earth's science editor Diane Toomey has been to Michigan and she joins me now. Diane, the advocates are using the word "cover-up" to describe what's going on. Why is that?

TOOMEY: The groups were looking for information on the city of Midland's contamination. But in the pile of papers they received back, there were references to extremely high dioxin levels in the Saginaw area 20 miles downstream from Dow headquarters. The problem was most of the information had been blacked out by the state, so they didn't really know what they were dealing with at that point. But then they got a tip. Tracy Easthope is with the Ecology Center, one of the groups that requested the documents.

EASTHOPE: A whistle blower faxed us anonymously a note, and it gave us the map with the sites indicated, and next to that, the levels. And the levels were as high as 7,200 parts per trillion. And to just give you an idea of that, the residential clean-up standard in Michigan is 90. So this was 80 times above what's considered safe, or an action level, in residences in Michigan.

TOOMEY: That 7,200 parts per trillion she refers to was a reading found in a farm field. This area does contain farmland. It also has a wildlife refuge that tested out at over 700 parts per trillion, and a golf course that tested at about 2,500 parts per trillion. By the way, once they had this whistle blower information, they then did a Freedom of Information Act request to the local Department of Environmental Quality office and they did get the uncensored documents at that point.

CURWOOD: Well, Diane, tell me, how would dioxin contamination end up 20 miles from the Dow plant in the first place?

TOOMEY: The Dow plant sits on the Tittabawassee River. In 1986, it rained for more than three weeks. And as a result, the Dow plant lost containment of its wastewater facility. And then the Tittabawassee River overflowed and it carried this material downstream, into the Saginaw flood plain. This is a plant, keep in mind, that in over its hundred years of operation has made everything from mustard gas to saran wrap to Agent Orange, napalm, various pesticides. I should also point out here that Dow disputes that it's the source of this dioxin contamination, though the company seems to be the lone voice that's saying that.

CURWOOD: Now, what happened after the state confirmed these hot spots? What did they do about them?

TOOMEY: Well, e-mails that were included in that Freedom of Information Act package reveal that there's a split in the Department of Environmental Quality. These e-mails show that staff was anxious to move ahead with widespread testing, but not so at the top of the Department. In November there's an e-mail from Andrew Hogarth; he's the head of the department's Environmental Response Division. And it says, quote, "Harding" - that's Russ Harding, the Director of the Department of Environmental Quality - "Harding apparently does not want us to proceed. I'm trying to influence that attitude," unquote. Recently the Department of Environmental Quality began to say that it couldn't do further testing because it wanted to wait to see what that federal health assessment recommended. But that report, that final report, was released a few weeks ago - this is the one everybody's been waiting on - and it says the state needs to get busy and do more testing, which is precisely what the Department of Environmental Quality staffers were lobbying for months ago.

CURWOOD: Now what, if anything, have the residents in Saginaw and these areas been told about this contamination?

TOOMEY: This is another contentious issue. Eleven households near the wildlife refuge that tested high for dioxin were notified last month, but so far that's it. We can see in these e-mails that there's a split in the department over this issue. Again, Andrew Hogarth writes in an e-mail, quote, "I'm uncomfortable with the length of time we have had the data without releasing it to them," unquote, meaning them being the property owners in the area. It's my understanding now that a complete notification of residents in the flood plain is in the works. I asked a spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Quality - his name is Ken Silfven - to respond to criticism that his agency had been unresponsive to the public on this issue.

SILFVEN: We hear virtually nothing from the general public. It really is a handful of people. Lansing-based environmental groups, Ann Arbor-based groups. But in terms of what we hear, you know, from the community, we're really not hearing anything.

TOOMEY: Environmental groups, though, would say that's because most people don't even know about this yet.

CURWOOD: So Diane, tell me, what happens next?

TOOMEY: The Department of Environmental Quality says that additional testing for dioxin will begin in May, at the very latest. Environmental groups say they'll be watching, especially since they say they perceive that the Department of Environmental Quality is not tough enough on polluters. The agency counters by saying that accusation is not only untrue, but it's unfair. In the meantime, there's a fight brewing in the state over how much dioxin is too much. I'll have more on that next week.

CURWOOD: Thank you, Living on Earth's Diane Toomey.

[MUSIC: Medeski, Martin & Wood, "Felic," THE DROPPER (Blue Note/Capitol - 2000)]

 

Links

here for Part 2 of the Dioxin story on the following week's show (Story #1 on "Dioxin Debate").">

 

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