(Beyond Pesticides, March 11, 2009) The new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Lisa Jackson, has put discussions with Dow Chemical Co. concerning dioxin contamination on hold, citing a need to have the process open and transparent. Negotiations with the industry giant began in the mid-1990s over how to clean-up dioxin contamination along 50 miles of rivers and floodplains of Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay watershed in Michigan. Dow has long been accused of moving too slowly to restore the polluted watershed.
Ms. Jackson announced her decision last week in a letter to environmental activists involved with the issue. She also stated that a team of high-ranking officials from her office would meet shortly with activist groups, as well as representatives of Dow and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). The letter states that the EPA’s regional office in Chicago would not participate in further negotiations until her team has reported back after its meetings in Michigan. The meetings are expected to take place next week.
“My goal is to ensure an expeditious and robust cleanup, and I will take steps to ensure that the dioxin contamination is addressed in a manner that is protective of human health and the environment – and that the process is open and transparent,” Ms. Jackson wrote.
Michelle Hurd Riddick, a member of the Lone Tree Council, a Saginaw-based group that urged Ms. Jackson to take an interest in the case shortly after her appointment as EPA administrator in January, said that her organization was encouraged by Ms. Jackson’s promise of “meaningful opportunities for public involvement” as the cleanup blueprint takes shape.
“We have a long history of this company going behind closed doors with regulators, and every time they do that the watershed loses and public health loses and the citizens lose,” Ms. Hurd Riddick said. “We’re very hopeful that it will be different this time.”
DEQ spokesman Robert McCann said it was fair for the new administration to take time to learn about the situation. “Our hope is that this review doesn’t slow down the process or require us to put off any plans for this year,” he said.
Negotiations began in the mid-1990s and still have not produced a comprehensive restoration plan. As the Bush administration was winding down in December, the two agencies and the company opened another round of discussions under a new legal framework they said would make things run more smoothly but that critics said would enable Dow to cut a favorable backroom deal.
Dow submitted what it described as a “good faith offer” for moving the planning forward in February. EPA’s Chicago office was in the process of evaluating the offer when the order came from headquarters to halt the discussions. Dow has acknowledged polluting the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers, their floodplains, portions of the city of Midland and Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay with dioxins for much of the 20th century, first by dumping liquid wastes and later by incinerating them.
The chemical giant contends the pollution hasn’t harmed people or wildlife but has spent about $40 million on studies, sediment sampling and other preliminary work. In 2007, it removed tainted soil from four highly toxic “hot spots,” one with the highest dioxin levels ever recorded in the Great Lakes region.
However, the high levels of dioxin and PCBs in the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers have made fish there unsafe to consume. Dioxins, a family of chemicals linked to cancer, weakened immune systems and reproductive problems, have been detected at levels as high as 1.6 million parts per trillion (ppt), 20 times higher than any other levels detected in any U.S. waterway. Michigan state guidelines require corrective action on contamination above a thousand parts per trillion. Advisories have previously been issued against eating carp, catfish, and white bass – fish that feed near the riverbed where contaminants are buried.
Previous talks with Dow ended unsuccessfully in January 2008 when EPA determined that Dow‚Äôs offers were not comprehensive enough.
Source: Associated Press