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Dioxin and other environmental concerns about the Midland flood

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

The devastating flooding in Midland is causing concern about potential environmental contamination. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy indicates until the flood waters recede, it will be difficult to determine the extent of any contamination.

However, the long-standing problem along the Tittabawassee River has been dioxin contamination from the Dow chemical complex.

The World Health Organization indicates dioxins are highly toxic and can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.

We’ve compiled a timeline of the dioxin contamination based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data, Michigan’s regulatory agencies and the substantial amount of reporting by Michigan Radio and The Environment Report over the years. It is not comprehensive, but is an outline of the history of the dioxin contamination.


Dow Chemical Company begins operations in Midland.


Dioxins and furans were produced as by products of chlorine-based products and were discharged directly into the Tittabawassee River.


Fish advisories were posted after Dow warned Michigan and the federal government about dioxin in the Tittabawassee River.


Valdus Adamkus was appointed to the Region 5 office of the U.S. EPA by President Ronald Reagan. Among other duties, Adamkus was to study dioxin pollution that got into the Great Lakes. He compiled a report that said dioxin is a cancer risk and that the Dow Chemical plant was responsible for some dioxin pollution. EPA officials in Washington D.C. called the report “trash.”


Congressional hearings were held in which Adamkus revealed that Dow was allowed to help rewrite the report on dioxin contamination. Adamkus said in an ABC interview, “It’s unethical, unusual, unprofessional to get the internal document approved by an outside company.”


President Ronald Reagan presents Valdus Adamkus with the Distinquished Executive Presidential Rank Award for his integrity.

Shortly after, Dow is forced to stop releasing dioxin into the waterways. Dow denies it’s the source of high dioxin levels found in fish.


The U.S. EPA begins the process of delegating environmental enforcement to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.


Michigan officials and Dow finally negotiate a cleanup, but nothing comprehensive is done.


Mary Gade is appointed by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 Administrator position.


Under Gade, the EPA finds dioxin at levels higher than anything previously found in the U.S. The hotspot was 23 miles downstream from the Dow complex. Gade uses emergency powers to require Dow to clean up sections of the Tittabawassee and Saginaw Rivers, according to a report in The Chicago Tribune.


Gade resigns before she was to be fired. She says it was because of her tough stance with Dow.

A Dow spokesman tells The Environment Report that Michigan and the EPA are using bad science and that dioxin is not as dangerous as people think.


Dow and the EPA reach an initial agreement about cleaning up dioxin. An EPA official tells The Environment Report the agreement does not actually contain any cleanup options. Over the previous few years, Dow cleaned up some hotspots.

Besides fish, it’s determined that people should not eat the chickens they raise or the eggs because the birds peck in the dirt and consume dioxin. Hunters are warned not to eat game along the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers.


The EPA tells The Environment Report that once they decide on a final cleanup plan with Dow, it will be at least 10 years before it will be finished.


The Associated Press reports Michigan environmental regulators reached a deal with Dow to clean up about 1,400 residential properties in Midland.

EPA misses its own deadline to release a major report on the health effects of dioxin. The American Chemistry Council asked the EPA to withdraw the dioxin report from interagency review, saying the assessment is flawed and that the EPA did not consider the economic impact of the report.


The EPA has a plan for cleaning up soil contaminated by dioxins. The plan does not clean up the entire floodplain. The first segment, a three mile stretch downstream from the Dow complex, is cleaned.


A second segment four miles long is cleaned in 2014-15.


Evaluation and a multi-year cleanup of properties in the adjacent Tittabawassee floodplain starts.


Cleanup up begins on a third segment of four miles.

EPA official says it’s hard to determine how long it will take to complete the cleanup. Some of the contaminated soil is covered up, some is removed, and in some cases the plan relies on natural processes to reduce the contamination. Dioxins don’t decompose for decades.


Cleanup expected to be complete by 2021.

The flood

The massive flood caused by heavy rains and the failure of two dams might undo some of the remediation that’s been done over the past several years. 

“I fully expect that’s going to re-suspend some of those contaminated sediments from the river channel and put those back into the floodplains just like it’s historically done," said Nathan Murphy, state director of the group Environment Michigan. 

“That was what created the floodplain dioxin levels that required cleanup, that created wildlife eating advisories and I’m very concerned that these high waters will put more dioxin-contaminated sediment back onto those floodplains,” he added.

That original dioxin contamination stretched more than 50 miles along the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers. 

The other issues

Hazardous waste and other kinds of waste are stored at industrial sites. A Dow facility and a Dow-Corning facility both near the river are listed by the U.S. EPA as “significant non-compliers” of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act – also called RCRA – which regulates how hazardous and non-hazardous waste should be handled.

In a Wednesday, May 20 Facebook post, Dow confirmed there were flood waters commingling with an on-site containment pond used for storm water and brine system/groundwater remediation. I looked up what chemicals might be put into these settling ponds. The list was 26 pages long. It included solvents, tars, lead and other heavy metals, fluorine, phosgene and many others.

The contingency plan approved by the state indicated the containment pond was to be protected against a 100-year flood. With climate change, the state might have to reconsider its protection standards for flooding.

Waste material is not the only concern. Nathan Murphy at Environment Michigan said there are greater concerns that we know nothing about.

“If you look at our Accidents Waiting To Happen report that we have up on our website, only New Jersey requires facilities to report everything they've got on site rather than just the waste. And what we found from just the New Jersey data is they have a lot more material that could be really hazardous pollution that's sitting on their site being stored for them to use,” Murphy said.

“There's no reason to think that Michigan companies or Michigan facilities are significantly different than those in New Jersey. And that suggests there's probably a really substantial volume of potentially really scary chemicals sitting on that Dow site with water encroaching closer and closer,” he added.

In a post on Facebook, Dow stated, “There has been no reported product releases.”

Dow did not respond to a request for an interview.

The risks can come from places other than Dow. It could be something as simple as a landscaper’s business. There are going to be chemicals stored there.

In an email, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy indicated it's also concerned about gas stations or other liquid and solid waste storage facilities that are underwater. It stated it will have a better idea of any contamination when the water recedes.

Information for this story was gleaned from reports by Rebecca Williams, Shawn Allee, Kyle Norris, Vince Duffy, Sarah Hulett, John Klein Wilson, Sarah Alvarez, Virginia Gordon, Mark Brush, and research by Dustin Dwyer.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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