Weighs Lower Dioxin Standards
Engler's Critics Accuse Him
of Giving Dow Chemical 'Sweetheart Deal'
In one of his final acts as Michigan governor, John Engler
(R) is trying to ease state standards for toxic dioxin
pollution, a move that could relieve Dow Chemical Co.
of substantial liability for future cleanup operations
at the company's headquarters and along a large watershed
leading into Lake Huron.
The proposed rule change, negotiated by Engler's Department
of Environmental Quality and Dow officials, has drawn
fire from Gov.-elect Jennifer M. Granholm (D) and regional
officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,
who say it may be either illegal or precipitous. Karl
E. Bremer, chief of the EPA's Region 5 toxics division,
said in a letter to the state that "it does not appear
that U.S. EPA guidance has been considered or followed
in developing" the new standard and risk assessment models.
Granholm, the outgoing state attorney general, said
during a campaign stop in a contaminated area downstream
from the Dow facility: "There is a definite lack of governmental
Environmental groups contend that Engler's business-friendly
administration is trying to minimize Dow's long-term financial
exposure to what may prove to be one of the largest corporate
pollution cases since the EPA last year ordered General
Electric to pay nearly half a billion dollars to dredge
toxic PCBs from the floor of the upper Hudson River in
Michigan officials and Dow executives dispute this, saying
they are merely trying to put in place a long-discussed
plan to study the extent and possible health implications
of public exposure to elevated levels of dioxin in the
central Michigan town of Midland, home to Dow Chemical,
and downstream along the Tittabawassee River.
"We've been in negotiations with Dow for a year, so I
don't think it's some rush type of process," said Patricia
A. Spitzley, press secretary for the Michigan Department
of Environmental Quality. "I don't think that in their
desire to get their house in order before they leave that
[administration officials] are compromising human health
and the environment."
Yesterday, a coalition of Michigan environmental groups
went to court in Lansing, the state capital, in a bid
to block a proposed consent order that would allow the
lower dioxin standard to take effect before Engler leaves
office in January.
Dioxin is a potent toxin that can cause cancer and disrupt
the immune and reproductive systems. It is a byproduct
from the manufacture of Agent Orange, mustard gas, chlorinated
pesticides and chlorophenol at Dow headquarters over the
past half-century. Experts say the elevated levels of
dioxin found in Midland soil likely came from the burning
of chlorinated compounds, while the dioxin in the Tittabawassee
flood plain likely came from waste ponds at the Dow complex
that overflowed in a 1986 flood.
The proposed rule change would increase by more than
ninefold the amount of dioxin allowed in Midland's soil
-- from the current 90 parts per trillion to 831 parts
per trillion. Some environmentalists say that if the proposed
rule change for Midland prevails, it will become the de
facto cleanup standard for the state -- an assumption
that state and Dow officials dispute.
"I think the governor is trying to hand Dow Chemical
a sweetheart deal that will essentially relieve them of
a large part of their liability for contamination of what
is the second-largest watershed in the Great Lakes," said
Tracey Easthope of the Ecology Center, a nonprofit regional
Dave Dempsey of the Michigan Environmental Council said
Dow is eager to wrap up negotiations with its longstanding
allies in state government before Granholm takes office
next month. Russell Harding, director of the state environmental
quality department, told the publication Chemical Policy
Alert in late October: "Frankly, Dow would like to get
this done with our administration here. The statements
that the attorney general made in this campaign scare
'em to death."
Neil Hawkins, Dow's Michigan environment, health and
safety leader, said the proposed new standard would continue
to protect the public and is based on site-specific assumptions
that "more realistically reflect actual exposure conditions."
"We believe the consent order, a legal process, is very
consistent with regulatory and administrative processes
of the state of Michigan," Hawkins said. "Dow's primary
concern is with the health of residents who live in Midland
and along the Tittabawassee River."
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