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What it takes to get a river cleaned up (part 2)

Imerman Park sits on the flood plain of the Tittabawassee River. Signs along the trail warn walkers about dioxin contamination in some of the park's soil.
Photo by Shawn Allee
Imerman Park sits on the flood plain of the Tittabawassee River. Signs along the trail warn walkers about dioxin contamination in some of the park's soil.

Dow Chemical polluted the Tittabawassee River with dioxin. Dioxin has been linked to several health issues, including cancer. A comprehensive clean up of the river has barely begun. Dow chemical, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state have wrestled over the cleanup for 30 years.

Michelle Hurd Riddick has spent the last 10 years of her life pushing to get the Tittabawassee River cleaned up.

When she’s not working as a nurse, she has helped file lawsuits against Dow. She religiously attends public meetings about the clean up and follows what the EPA is doing by filing freedom of information requests. And she writes a lot of letters to state and federal officials.

Hurd Riddick is part of an environmental group called the Lone Tree Council. She talked about how she felt as we drove along the river.

“I get frustrated. I get frustrated. There are a number of citizens you know who have hung in on this issue as long as I’ve been on this issue. But not a lot of them. They have to get on with their lives. And I understand that and I respect that.”

The Tittabawassee flows through Hurd Riddick’s hometown of Saginaw before emptying its waters and contaminated sediment into Lake Huron.

Dow did not want to be recorded for this story.

The EPA says once they decide on a final clean up plan with Dow, it will be at least 10 years before such a cleanup is finished.

Milton Clark worked on the dioxin issue for the EPA in his 30 years at the agency.

“Any time you’re dealing with a major corporation there is a tendency to move slowly on very large pollution cases. There is a complicated amount of politics and science.”

The state and EPA have passed responsibility for the cleanup back and forth. Each one has accused the other of letting Dow call too many of the shots. The advocates are often pushed to the sidelines in the negotiations.

The situation on the Tittabawassee has a lot in common with the Hudson River in New York. General Electric polluted the Hudson with a chemical that’s a known carcinogen. That fight dragged on for more than 20 years before GE agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to dredge the river and take the pollution out.

The difference is that the environmental groups working on the Hudson have a lot of power. They brought the pollution to the public’s attention and kept the pressure on GE.

Paul Gallay is the Executive Director of Riverkeeper in New York.

“Riverkeeper and its partners just made a very conscious decision that we would counter every play; every attempt to lawyer up, every attempt to spin the facts, every attempt to say don’t worry this will all take care of itself. It took a lot of money for experts, and a very clear sense that if we were not being given a strong role in the process, we had to demand it.”

Riverkeeper raised a lot of money for its fight. And they can play political hardball. One of the leaders, and the head lawyer at Riverkeeper is Robert Kennedy Jr.

There is less star power along the banks of the Tittabawassee, and less money. Michelle Hurd-Riddick is 57 and she says she doesn’t think she’ll live to see the river cleaned up.

“In my ideal world, I would win the lotto, I would have lots of money. And I would hire some of the smartest and the best attorneys to help us…I don’t know…But that’s not going to happen (laughs). Number one because I don’t buy lotto tickets (laughs).”

She says she stays in the fight because to her, the river and Lake Huron are worth it.


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