Documentary on Dow’s Dioxin Scandal Ignored by Four Local PBS Stations
by BRIAN MCKENNA
Three “Justice for Bhopal” terrorists were shot dead at a Dow Chemical
facility in Piscataway, New Jersey on December 14, 2003. Bhopal
activists — seeking redress for Dow’s failure to compensate victims of
the worst industrial accident of all time — stormed the Dow facility,
took eight Dow workers hostage killing one. Later a SWAT team took out
the three terrorists.
For the record, it was Piscataway police dressed as the Bhopal
“terrorists” in a mock drill. The slur had no basis in fact. But it
gives a portal into the chemical giant’s consciousness where
democratic inquiry is linked to terrorism.
On December 3rd 1984, just after midnight, 40 tons of poisonous
substances leaked from Union Carbide’s (now Dow’s) pesticide plant in
Bhopal, central India. A huge yellow cloud exposed a half million
people to the gases, which hung over the city for hours. It remains
the worst industrial accident of all time, with an estimated 7,000
deaths and 190,000 injuries the first few days and over 15,000 claims
of deaths to date.
Guns and Guards
Dow has not learned its lesson. It is successfully fighting U.S.
Homeland Security initiatives that would require them to use safer
chemicals and processes where available, to better protect the 8
million residents surrounding their plants across the country. But
they are reluctant to consider risk reduction alternatives beyond guns
and guards. And guns and guards are having a field day.
Midland, Michigan is Dow’s international headquarters. In Spring 2003,
filmmaker Steve Meador was taking digital video footage of the Dow
chemical facility there while sitting in the back of his pick-up truck
as his girlfriend drove on a public road. They were soon pulled over
and detained by Midland police, Dow security, and a deputy from the
Midland County sheriff’s office. “It was pretty scary until they
figured out we weren’t terrorists casing the place.” Meador was making
a documentary on dioxin pollution in Midland and downstream. Police
took his picture and let him go.
“Dow security said that if we had been pulled over on their property
that they could have confiscated the video,” said Meador.
Meador made his 90-minute documentary “The Long Shadow” — a critical
investigation of Dow’s dioxin dealings with Michigan state government.
The film was part of Maeder’s Master’s Project at Michigan State
University’s Center for Environmental Journalism. It shows how Dow and
state agencies collaborated to weaken regulatory enforcement, delayed
public notification of possible health hazards associated with dioxin,
and dragged their feet with an investigation.
In 2001 the Engler administration learned that dioxin levels in the
Tittabwassee River floodplain, downstream from Midland’s Dow Chemical
were found at over 7,000 parts per trillion near parks and residential
areas (80 times Michigan’s cleanup standards). But they didn’t bother
to tell anyone. Finally the Lone Tree Council and the Michigan
Environmental Council filed a Freedom of Information Act request to
get the data, alerted by conscientious DEQ insiders. In January 2002
the FOIA revealed that MDEQ Director Russ Harding had blocked further
soil testing and was suppressing a state health assessment that called
for aggressive state action. Later the Engler administration secretly
tried to work out a “sweetheart deal” with Dow to raise the clean-up
level of dioxin to 831 parts per trillion, thus circumventing clean-up
of the dioxin in most areas. A judge later threw this out.
“I never even knew what dioxin was,” said Kathy Henry, one of the
floodplain residents interviewed in the film. “My first reaction to
hearing the news was fear, then denial. I didn’t want to know.” The
MDEQ recommends that Henry remove her clothing the moment she enters
the house after mowing her lawn. She looks out at her property as a
All the above and more is detailed in the film, along with an
interview with Harding. (Click extended entry to read more.)