DR VON X, MIDLAND, MICHIGAN, AUGUST 19, 2006
Dow has a long history of killing and contaminating people for profit. Just as you might expect a serial killer to perfect their technique over time to evade detection and responsibility, so has Dow.
Dow knew for several decades that the Tittabawassee River watershed, downstream from their plant and world headquarters in Midland Michigan, was likely to be heavily contaminated with dioxin, among other chemicals – knew because they’d done the contaminating (by dumping waste products there). The city of Midland itself is also heavily contaminated, but the source happens to be different – an incinerator that Dow operated for many years left a plume of dioxin fallout across much of the city. Knowing this, they did nothing, and remained silent.
Several years ago, while the state of Michigan was under the Republican administration of Governor John Engler, random testing of the Tittabawassee by the Department of Environmental Quality revealed shockingly high levels of dioxin. The DEQ hid the test results and also chose to remain silent. In fact the results did not become public until a DEQ whistleblower told a local environmental group that the tests existed (this was two years later).
The publicity and outcry forced the DEQ to announce more testing. Now that the crisis had been revealed, Dow was in a very dangerous position. According to their operating license (a legal document which permits them to function) Dow was legally obligated to clean up contamination identified as theirs to the state standard – in this case, a contamination level of 90 parts per trillion, or ppt. But given the levels of contamination that were being found, any cleanup would be extremely expensive. Levels of several thousand ppt were found throughout the floodplain – a vast area populated with thousands of people and hundreds of homes, schools, hospitals, farms and businesses. You can imagine the vast cost this would entail – and legally, there was no question that Dow was on the hook for all of it.
Legally the case might have been airtight, but that all means nothing if no one intends to enforce it. And Dow had many friends in the administration, starting with the Governor. The DEQ and Dow held closed-door meetings where they decided to solve the problem with the stroke of a pen – they’d simply raise the state standard for dioxin cleanup from 90 ppt to something in the neighborhood of 890 ppt. If this were done, Dow would still have to dredge and cleanup the sediment within the river – which often contained dioxin at levels above 10,000 ppt (the highest level found was 17,000 ppt) – but that’s much cheaper and easier that remediating a floodplain with thousands of homes.
The deal fell apart when Jennifer Granholm, then the state Attorney General, declared that a deal like this (reached outside of normal administrative procedure and behind closed doors) was illegal. Later in 2002, Jennifer Granholm was elected Governor.
Dow’s “quick fix” had failed. Now they had to roll out all the stops. And they’ve done so. Among other strategies, they’ve:
* Dramatically upped their “charitable” donations throughout the community. Throughout the entire region, they’re handing out money in fistfuls, and slapping their name on everything that they can. In fact, the corporate foundation is handing out so much money that Dow recently gave it another $100 million.
* Dow public relations folks have been canvassing every local PTA, farmer’s association, and kiddie fair for nearly four years, giving presentations to the membership of every organization they can reach downplaying the dangers of dioxin.
* They’ve publicly threatened to abandon their headquarters and leave Michigan, costing thousands of jobs, if forced to accept responsibility.
* They’ve created a front group of “concerned citizens” from the area that publicly support Dow at every opportunity, and label the environmentalists as crazy tree-hugging communists (one of the virtues of creating a separate group like this is that they can crudely smear Dow’s opponents and Dow can disclaim responsibility). The group is called “Midland Matters”.
* Their friends in the MI house and senate proved Dow’s legislative muscle by passing a bill through both chambers which would have slashed the DEQ budget, cut 117 employees, permanently eliminated the hazardous waste division (responsible for dioxin testing), and would have slashed the DEQ Director’s salary by 15% as an added punitive bonus. Although Gov. Granholm vetoed the bill, it was after its passage that the DEQ, Lt. Governor John Cherry, and Dow began closed-door negotiations about how to proceed. Concerned citizens were excluded.
* Dow has funded several studies by sympathetic scientists designed to downplay the risks posed by dioxin or the contamination.
As you can see, their strategy is savvy and multi-pronged. Bhopal used to be Dow’s #1 threat, but now Bhopal is definitely second-tier (they’ve moved all their best PR people from Bhopal to work on this dioxin scandal). The open-and-shut legal position, combined with the possibility of an Administration willing to enforce the law, put Dow against the wall. You can see how they’ve responded: with all guns blazing.
The last point is that the $15 million, Dow-funded study was consciously designed to downplay the dioxin risks. Firstly, it was entrusted to a scientist Dow knew and trusted: Garabrant has a long history of churning out industry-friendly research. It’s how he makes his living. The original study proposal was so flawed that it was flatly rejected by just about anyone with any scientific credibility, including the EPA, DEQ and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (among other reasons, this is because the “control” group was to be a population from Midland, which is itself contaminated. Since this isn’t a health study, but is instead supposed to determine if folks had more dioxin in their bodies than they should have, the choice of control was important). As it was, the “control” population finally agreed upon was STILL from an area likely to have higher dioxin exposure, due to an old incinerator.
So what are we to make of this new study by Garabrant? The original study was tremendously flawed. It was improved slightly in order to retain some level of scientific credibility, without which it would be meaningless, but it remained flawed, and more likely to arrive at findings favorable to Dow than an objective study. The fact that it has found results unfavorable to Dow imply than an objective study would find results even MORE unfavorable. As it is, Dow and Garabrant have made numerous comments in the press designed to downplay the study’s results and make it sound like they are completely favorable to Dow (since citizens are unlikely to read or understand the actual study, media coverage is all that most folks will ever hear of it).
This new study is STILL an indictment of Dow’s dioxin.