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.)
The story continues to devolve. A few months ago, in November 2004 the
state of Michigan issued a game consumption advisory for the
Tittabawassee -river floodplain because of Dow’s dioxin. Turkeys and
deer are now considered potentially toxic. This was only the second
time in Michigan history that such a warning was made. Still, the
crisis is vastly underreported in Michigan media.
“Unfortunately, The Long Shadow was never shown on Michigan PBS,” said
Meador. Meador sent a rough cut to four stations — WCMU (Mt.
Pleasant), WFUM at the University of Michigan (Flint), WTVS (Detroit),
and WKAR at Michigan State University (East Lansing) in December 2003.
“All of these stations had broadcast a previous documentary of mine
entitled ‘A May to Remember’ about the Bath School bombing of 1927,
Strangely, all of the stations were completely unresponsive to ‘The
Long Shadow’ (i.e., phone calls and e-mails not returned).”
Meador says the film’s merits have been recognized by environmental
reporters from the Bay City Times (Jeff Kart) and Detroit Free Press
(Hugh McDiarmid). “The affected residents in the floodplain also had
very nice things to say about it,” he added. “I’m not sure why the PBS
stations didn’t bite. A number of people have suggested that the
stations shied away because they are underwritten by Dow, and I think
that is a possibility.”
Dow is big funder to universities which house three of these public
television stations. WCMU is at Central Michigan University, 30 miles
from Midland. In 1978 DOW’s President withdrew money from CMU after
Jane Fonda spoke there on economic democracy. “[It] will not be
resumed until we are convinced our dollars are not expended in
supporting those who would destroy us.”” CMU got the message. It’s new
“Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow College of Health Professions” touts Dow
even though DOW only gave $5 million, MI taxpayers gave $37.5 million.
The University of Michigan (home of WFUM) has a similar tale. During
WW2 top secret work on a shell fuse that later developed into a “smart
bomb” was aided by University of Michigan physicists, working in an
old gravel pit outside of Ann Arbor. Later, DOW CEO Leland Doan served
on the UM Board of Regents from 1952 to 1959, running as a Republican.
In recent years Dow and its offshoots have contributed more than $10
million in direct contributions to the University of Michigan.
Dow has sunk millions into Michigan State University (home of WKAR).
For example it gave $5 million to build the Dow Institute for
Materials Research, a 46,000-square-foot addition to the east wing of
MSU’s Engineering Building, in 1996. In the spring of 2002 Dow co-
sponsored a seminar series at MSU’s Detroit College of Law, called,
“Creating Sustainable Cities in the 21st Century.” On March 19th the
talk was titled, “Abandonment of the Cities.” Unlike the University of
Michigan, which has an active “Justice for Bhopal” student group, at
MSU there was no such chapter, and so no one was on hand to ask
whether Dow had abandoned the city of Bhopal.
So it’s not just guns and guards but the cash greenery that helps Dow
to mold public perception.
Two Films, Two Terrorisms
In point of contrast, Michigan PBS stations were enthusiastic with
Maeder’s other film, “A May to Remember,” which detailed the worst act
of mass murder in American history prior to the 1995 Oklahoma City
bombing. Andrew Kehoe sought revenge after his farm was foreclosed
upon, due in part to the taxes required to build the new Bath school.
So he blew it up, killing 45 people, mostly schoolchildren.
When the focus is on a single demented terrorist the public airwaves
are available, but when the gaze turns to a transnational guilty of
poisoning vast swaths of mid-Michigan with dioxin — what the EPA
calls, “the worst known to man,” — that’s a different story,
especially when the public airwaves are partly underwritten by the
In fact, Maeder could have gone much further with his critique of Dow.
There are stories recounting conflict over asbestos, breast implants,
vinyl chloride contamination in Louisiana, labor decertification
campaigns in Texas, union fights in Midland, and Bhopal.
Especially Bhopal. Given the death counts, the prolonged agony, and
the persistent callous treatment of its victims, the Union Carbide/Dow
Chemical disaster is worse than the September 11th tragedy. When cast
this way I recall Nietzsche’s observation that, “Insanity in
individuals is rare, in nations, epochs and eras it is the rule.”
“Growth [is] the opiate we’re all hooked on…” said Frank Popoff,
former CEO of DOW Chemical in Growth Company, DOW Chemical’s First
Century. The 1997 book was written by E. N. Brandt, a 40 year public
relations man at Dow who now has a $1.3 million chair named after him
at Michigan State University. Universities are also interested in
growth, it seems. Is DOW a drug abuser? Obsession with “growth” does
help explain its behavior. Yet as Alcoholics Anonymous followers know,
breaking the denial is the first step in overcoming an addiction.
Indeed, Dow seems to view anyone who challenges its growth manifesto
as a terrorist. Keith McKennon, DOW research director from 1985-1990
told a writer that “During that period Dow transmogrified from the
company that sets up antiaircraft guns to shoot down EPA flyover
planes to the company that exists today.” McKennon doesn’t say if he’s
kidding or not about the guns.
But Dow is surely not kidding with its ability to buy silence [i.e.
the company that exists today]. Dow even dabbles in public health and
journalism. In 1999 Hillsdale College received $500,000 for the
Herbert H. Dow II Program in American Journalism. It is “devoted to
the restoration of ethical, high-minded journalism standards and to
the reformation of our cultural, political, and social practices.”
That year the Dow Program sponsored Richard Lowry, Editor-in- Chief of
the National Review, as a guest speaker. In his speech, titled “The
High Priests of Journalism Truth, Morality, and the Media,” Lowry
criticized American journalism for “reinforc[ing] the radical side in
America’s culture wars.”
Not likely to be recruited to speak is Linda Hunt who informs us that
in her excellent 1991 book, “Secret Agenda,” that in 1951 Dow hired
Otto Ambros, the Nazi war criminal convicted at Nuremberg for slavery
and mass murder in the killing of thousands of Jews with nerve gas.
Dow’s close relationships with defacto state terrorists is also less
likely to see curricula time at Hillsdale. In 1973 Dow was first
company to receive a phone call from Pinochet’s military in 1973,
according to Brandt, soon after his forces assassinated democratically
elected Chilean President Salvador Allende, toppling his government,
asking Dow to come back, which Dow “readily accepted” (a Dow official
saluting the economic “miracle” of Pinochet).
One wonders how Hillsdale or PBS for that matter would explore the
1941 charge by the U.S. Justice Department that Dow conspired with the
Nazi’s I.F. Farben to hold down magnesium production in the United
States in the prewar era (Dow later pleaded nolo contendere).
Which gets us back to dioxin. According to Tittabawassee River Watch
when Governoral candidate Jennifer Granholm visited the area during
her campaign she promised an open, transparent process and a timely
response to public health issues. But once in office Granholm went
back on her word and engaged in closed door negotiations with Dow,
greatly disappointing the Michigan environmental community and many
residents living along the 53 mile stretch of the contaminated
Tittabawassee and Saginaw Rivers.
Granholm is currently under attack by environmentalists for permitting
Nestle take water from Lake Michigan without a fight.
Privatization is the name of the neoliberal game. Maeder cannot get
his film shown on WKAR even though the WKAR offices are just
downstairs from the environmental journalism offices in the MSU
Communication Arts Building.
Citizen groups from Mid-Michigan to Bhopal India are linked in their
battles to defend their homelands against the terror of Dow. But
Michigan media and universities are quiescent, fearful of offending
Brian McKenna can be reached at MCKENNA193@aol.com.