Corrections: A story in Wednesday’s edition of the Daily (Ecology center pressures Dow) incorrectly stated that Dow Chemical has agreed to remove dioxins from the Midland area. It should have said Dow has agreed to reduce exposure to the dioxins. The same article, instead of saying “Garabrant said the study’s goal is to discover the best possible method to clean up the chemicals,” should have said: “The study’s goal is to find whether dioxins in the soils get into people’s bodies and is therefore harmful, and, if so, how this happens.”

 

 

Several thousand paper fish may soon make a 66-mile journey from Ann Arbor to Lansing in an attempt by Ann Arbor’s Ecology Center to alert state lawmakers of the urgency of dioxin contamination in Midland, Michigan.

Volunteers from the center encouraged students to sign a petition and write their name on paper fishes as a symbolic sign of protest last Friday.

The center plans to lobby the state government about dioxin pollution in Midland and its surrounding watershed which hurts the fish and those living in the surrounding area. The pollution is allegedly the result of Dow Chemical’s dumping of toxic waste byproducts into the water. Because Dow is currently in the preliminary stages of cleaning up the dioxins, the center hopes that the signatures it is collecting will force Gov. Jennifer Granholm to focus on ensuring the cleanup of the chemicals. So far, the center has collected 2,000 signatures toward its goal of 5,000.

Dioxins are carcinogenic byproducts of various industrial and nonindustrial processes. They are known for their negative effects on the development of children and on the immune system.

Dow officials have said in the past that the company released dioxins into the air and the nearby Tittabawassee River until the 1950s, although the timeline of when Dow began halting dioxin production in the area is still disputed by state officials.

While Dow has agreed to reduce exposure to the dioxins from the area, in the past decade, some residents of Midland and environmental activists have pressured Dow to guarantee it will clean up the dioxin pollution.

According to Ecology Center Director Mae Stevens, the affected area spans 20 miles along the Tittabawassee in Midland and into the Saginaw Bay watershed, Michigan’s largest.

She added that contaminated areas have concentrations as high as 16,000 parts per trillion. In most circumstances, Michigan residential guidelines regarding dioxins recommend cleanup when levels of the chemical reach 90 parts per trillion. The average for 68 other locations tested in Michigan is only 6.339 parts per trillion.

“(Dow) has accepted responsibility in large part,” said John Musser, a Dow official.

Musser added that dioxin dumping is a thing of the past and that Dow now produces virtually no dioxins.

Dow is obligated to shoulder the cost of the cleanup, said Robert McCann, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He added that Dow is currently conducting the first steps of the cleanup, which include measures to prevent public exposure and alerting homeowners in affected areas.

Dow began its efforts at the beginning of this year, placing the highest priority on severely flooded areas on the riverbank, Musser said. He added that Dow must submit a comprehensive plan to clean up the dioxins to the DEQ by the end of this year before the cleanup process can begin.

The cleanup does not have a timeline yet, but McCann said Dow would probably have the cleanup effort well underway before the company’s current state-issued operating license expires in early 2013. Musser said a timeline for the cleanup could be set as early as the end of the year, as soon as their plan is approved and underway.

But not all parties find Dow’s efforts satisfactory.

“They’re dragging their feet,” said Tracey Easthope, who directs the Ecology Center’s Environmental Health Project.

In response to the possibility that dioxins may have contaminated Midland residents’ homes, Dow has conducted carpet and furnace duct cleaning, general dusting and landscaping to cover exposed soil. But Easthope said the measures are only superficial and do not eliminate the dioxins at their source.

“People don’t need a maid service,” Easthope said. “Unless you get the source, you are going to recontaminate the house.”

But Musser said Dow is waiting on the results of several studies that will examine the dioxin levels and their effects in lieu of taking immediate action on the issue. “It’s just premature to be talking about specific actions to be taken,” he said.

Some environmentalists have called on Dow to begin cleaning up the river immediately.

But Musser said that “to dredge the river would be very disruptive and would be very devastating to that ecology, and we don’t think that would be a good response at any level.”

One study on the effect of the dioxins is being headed by the University. Led by Environmental Health Sciences Prof. David Garabrant, research teams have investigated the dioxin levels in homes, soil and dust in contaminated areas since the summer of 2004.

The study’s goal is to find whether dioxins in the soils get into people’s bodies and is therefore harmful, and, if so, how this happens.

“This research is going to address a critically important problem in the Midland and Saginaw area on a scientific, factual basis to assess the meaning of the problem and help people move forward,” he said.

Some have questioned the impartiality of the study because Dow allocated $10 million to fund the project. But Garabrant argues it is completely independent because Dow has no authority over the study.

“There’s a tremendous amount of protection against outside interference,” he said, adding that Dow only has access to public information from the study. Garabrant’s team hopes to release the results by next fall.

Michigan State University and the University of Missouri are also conducting studies related to the issue. Musser said Dow has spent $30 million on studies and preliminary response efforts.

Among students, there is a variety of opinions about the situation.

Engineering freshman Seifu Chonde, whose parents are Dow employees, has lived in Midland his whole life. He said Dow has provided jobs for many people in the area.

“Dow has made (Midland) a more respectable city,” he said.

LSA freshman Anna Lammers, who supports the Ecology Center’s efforts, said she hopes they will open Granholm’s eyes to the urgency of the situation.

“It all drains into Lake Huron,” LSA freshman Geoff Perrin said. “It’s pretty much everyone’s problem.”

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