EPA to Fast-Track Dow Dioxin Cleanup in Michigan Watershed
WASHINGTON, DC, May 28, 2009 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will expedite cleanup of dioxins in Michigan's Saginaw Bay watershed originating from the Dow Chemical plant at Midland, Administrator Lisa Jackson promised Tuesday.

But Jackson declined to list the contaminated area on the National Priorities List of most hazardous sites, commonly called the Superfund List, saying in a May 26 letter to members of affected communities, "this step would cause further delay if pursued now."

"I am ready, however, to seek NPL listing if Dow at any time does not comply with requirements that EPA deems necessary for protection of public health and the environment. I will insist on including as part of our agreement with Dow a commitment that Dow not challenge EPA’s right to pursue NPL listing if we decide it is needed in the future," Jackson wrote.

She also pledged an acceleration of the EPA's overall scientific review of dioxins, a class of 210 chemicals that are tough to remove from water and soil. Dioxins are produced by industries that incinerate waste or manufacture chemicals and pesticides.

Dow Chemical's Midland Michigan plant on the Tittabawassee River (Photo courtesy EPA and MDEQ)
The Saginaw Bay Watershed is contaminated with dioxins and other chemicals from the Dow facility that extend 50 miles downstream on the Tittabawassee and Saginaw Rivers and into the bay.

The contamination was first discovered by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in December 2000 in an area of the floodplain near the confluence of the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers. Toxic furans chlorobenzenes, parathion, chlorostyrenes, hexachlorobutadiene, and lindane have also been identified.

People living along the Tittabawassee and Saginaw Rivers and recreational users of the rivers and the bay are at risk of exposure to these toxics, according to the Michigan DEQ.

Jackson announced in her letter to residents that the EPA, working with the Michigan DEQ, will take lead responsibility for cleanup efforts in portions of the Saginaw Bay watershed under the federal Superfund program.

She said the EPA would commit the resources and expertise necessary to accelerate site investigation and cleanup and protect human health and the environment.

"I understand that cleanup progress in the watershed has been uneven, with false starts by EPA and other regulatory bodies, and that there is considerable frustration and concern by many elements in the community," Jackson wrote.

"I also understand that, while Dow Chemical has made progress in characterizing the extent of contamination and addressing some of the most severe threats, much work remains, including investigating the contamination, assessing options for comprehensive remediation, and designing and implementing a remedy," she wrote.

Before committing EPA to any course of action, Jackson said a team of officials from EPA Headquarters and EPA Region 5 toured the two river systems and met with the major stakeholders on March 18 and 19. Discussions with the Dow Chemical team, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, environmental organizations, local business leaders and government officials took place.

During the evaluation process, Jackson directed Region 5 to suspend ongoing negotiations with Dow Chemical "so that we did not continue down a path that might be incorrect," she said.

Jackson has reason to be concerned about mistakes. In January 2008, then Region 5 administrator Mary Gade was forced to resign after she abruptly terminated negotiations with Dow Chemical over cleanup of the dioxin contamination. Her resignation became the subject of a U.S. Senate inquiry. (ENS, May 13, 2008)

Now, based on its most recent set of meetings, the EPA has developed milestones and schedules for achieving a "comprehensive and expeditious cleanup" and will present them at a public meeting in Michigan on June 17. Negotiations with Dow are expected to proceed following this public meeting.

As one part of its overall cleanup plan, Jackson said the EPA will continue to negotiate an agreement requiring Dow to sample the rivers and bay for dioxin contamination and identify options for cleanup.

Jackson pledged an unprecedented degree of transparency during these negotiations so the public has a full opportunity to be heard. Once the agreement is in place, EPA will implement a comprehensive public involvement plan going forward.

Dow spokesperson Mary Draves told ENS that the company is "prepared to move forward" on negotiations with the federal agency and is willing to comply with EPA's request for enhanced transparency.

Dow removal of contaminated soil (Photo courtesy EPA and MDEQ)

While EPA hopes to work cooperatively with the company, Jackson said that the agency "will not hesitate to use all tools at its disposal – including a wide range of penalties and sanctions – to ensure Dow Chemical upholds its responsibility to clean up this site." If Dow fails to meet its responsibilities, EPA will conduct the cleanup at the company’s expense," she said.

To provide more immediate guidance at the Dow site, Jackson said that, based on a comprehensive review of state cleanup levels and the relevant science, EPA will announce interim cleanup goals by the end of the year and would review a Dow-funded study on dioxin exposure by September 30.

Jackson also announced that the EPA will accelerate the long-delayed scientific process to complete the assessment of the health risks dioxins pose to the public at the Dow site and many other sites around the country.

“We are also redoubling our efforts to provide guidance on the science of dioxin health effects to inform cleanup decisions at this site and protect other communities, in Michigan and across the country, facing dioxin contamination,” she said.

Jackson said a draft report will be released by December 31, 2009 and a final report and assessment by the end of 2010.

The draft report, which will be subject to public comment and peer review, will address the latest science on the issue and respond to concerns raised by the National Academies of Science in 2006 about a previous EPA draft dioxin assessment.

While, negotiations will address the entire 50 miles of dioxin contamination from Dow Chemical, the U.S. EPA Region 5 has been negotiating cleanups of smaller areas under the Superfund law.

In March, Region 5 announced that Dow Chemical agreed to clean up dioxin contamination at Saginaw Township's West Michigan Park and nearby properties. The work is expected to be finished and the park reopened by the end of June, weather permitting.

West Michigan Park is three miles upstream from the confluence of the Tittabawassee and Shiawassee Rivers. Historically, the park and the neighborhood around the park have flooded a number of times, resulting in dioxin-contaminated river sediment being deposited in the area.

Stabilization of erosion along the Tittabawassee River banks is also a priority for the Michigan DEQ and the EPA due to high levels of dioxins and furans in the bank soils, according to a report issued by the agencies earlier this month. "Bank erosion is significant and widespread" and is an "active source of contamination into the river as these banks erode," the agencies warn.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.