Looking for more than words; it's time for action

On May 13, 2006, the News carried a front-page story by Kathie Marchlewski entitled “Environmentalists encouraged by Dow plan.”
The context was the May Dow/DEQ meeting informing the public of progress on the Tittabawassee River floodplain cleanup. As the summer wears down, and another public meeting is about to take place, the gentle reader must allow me a bit of a rant. I was the unfortunate source of that optimism.
Before the week was out and the ink was dry on that story, Dow was challenging the Michigan Department of Public Health’s risk numbers — and my optimism was morphing again into cynicism.
It is absolutely frustrating.
It has been five years since the discovery of elevated levels of dioxin in the Tittabawassee floodplain, and nearly eight years since continued elevated levels uncovered in Midland.
To date the extent of the contamination in Midland remains unmapped as does the extent in the floodplain and Saginaw River. The Company has repeatedly submitted inadequate plans to the DEQ. From what we have heard since the May meeting, Dow and the State are not in agreement as to what level of dioxins should be left in the soil or sediment.
We are talking about chemical trespass here folks, why should there be a debate? Residents did not ask for dioxin in their backyards. Nor should they be expected to live with some compromised dioxin number different from background.
In addition, the Company continues to contest dioxin’s toxicity, question its bioavailability, and support legislative efforts to compromise cleanup levels. In a word, it continues to evade responsibility.
But it does talk a good game. Dow has launched a multi-million dollar ad effort: The “Human Element campaign.”
According to Patti Temple Rocks, Dow vice president of global communications: “This is more than an ad campaign to our company. It is a statement to the world and, more importantly, to ourselves about the future direction of our business … it reflects our intention as a company to prioritize the things we do to advance innovation and focus the people and resources of Dow on solving human problems.”
Anyone who has scanned a magazine in a dentist’s or doctor’s office will have seen one of Dow’s Human Element “faces.” I too have seen a Dow face – in the anger, the violation, the futility of residents of the Tittabawassee floodplain who find themselves four years into a process that at best remains uncertain.
What is the real Dow? Have they turned the corner, intent on “solving human problems?” If, as the bard noted, the past is prologue, the company’s past is a clue to its future, and its past has not been directed at solutions.
Dow’s foot-dragging, its meeting the state behind closed doors, its questioning of dioxin’s toxicity, in the face of overwhelming academic research (and the last report from the National Academy of Science) is an approach as old as corporate irresponsibility. It even has a name, it is referred to as manufacturing uncertainty.
Though most identified with the tobacco industry, other corporations opposed to public health cleanups or environmental regulations have used the same tactic. Manufactured uncertainty was explained in The American Journal of Public Health (July 2005) as a company’s questioning of the validity of scientific evidence and ridiculing research that threatens their interests. Its purpose is to sow ambiguity in peoples’ minds, to deflect regulatory pressure and to retard actions that cost the company money. As noted, the tobacco industry and the lead industry used it for years. The chemical lobby, particularly the Chlorine Council, has effectively used Washington lobbyists to delay release of the national dioxin reassessment for fifteen years. Dow has used “spin” on its animal research and questioned the state at every step of the remediation process. That is Dow’s past.
Will the August meeting disclose a new Dow — will they become cooperative and committed to an expedited clean up of their community?
In May, its spokesperson told the public that the Company couldn’t complete a local dioxin cleanup until 2017 — 11 years from now. A child born today would be in middle school before a cleanup was completed. That is not acceptable. It is time to call on Dow to “prioritize” and “focus” at home — quit arguing and simply act — a far better testimonial to its commitment than fine sounding words. But “focus” and “prioritize” are too vague — the d company has to commit to removing its dioxin to background levels — 8 to 10 ppt — and begin now, yesterday — anything less is simply hypocrisy.

Terry Miller is executive director of the Lone Tree Council.

Editor’s note: Dow and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality are hosting a community meeting Wednesday at the Horizon’s Conference Center, 6200 State St., Saginaw, beginning at 6 p.m. Staff from Dow, DEQ the Michigan Department of Community Health will be available for discussion/questions beginning at 5:30 p.m. and for one half hour after the meeting.

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