Silence isn't golden, residents believe

Kathie Marchlewski , Midland Daily News

09/05/2004

Silence from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is breeding frustration for residents of Midland and Saginaw counties. Months have passed with no word on the progress of dioxin-related negotiations between the state and The Dow Chemical Co.

While communities are split on the urgency of the matter -- some fear health effects and others just want the dispute to disappear without economic impact -- both circles agree that communication from state officials is long overdue.

"They do need some time initially behind closed doors, but it's been three months," said Bill Egerer, founder of Midland Matters, a resident group opposed to swift cleanup action without evidence that dioxin levels in Midland are harmful. "At a minimum, there should be some kind of regular report on progress," he said.

Others fear the quiet time is a sign that action plans to deal with dioxin are being muddied by legislative pressure to keep the Saginaw Valley's reputation clean.

Gary Henry, flood plain resident and lead litigant in the potential class-action lawsuit waged against Dow over the contamination, has joined more than two dozen residents to plead with the governor for action.

He and others fear the Democratic leadership is reverting to the closed-door policies of the Engler administration.

"There was hope among us that with the new Granholm administration, the right thing would be done for the people living in the area," the group wrote in a letter delivered last week. "It appears now that nothing has changed from the Engler days. What a very sad day for all of us living in Dow's dioxin facility."

The former governor and then-director of the DEQ, Russell Harding, were accused of brokering a sweetheart deal with Dow and came close to issuing a consent order that could have left the company with minimal liability for the pollution. The deal collapsed in the final days of the administration.

Present DEQ staffers for more than a year had been working closely with the community as the agency and Dow worked on plans for remediation activities, but even the smallest tasks, like placing contamination notification signs at public parks, have not been completed. The signs were one of many interim plans at the top of the DEQ's list of priorities -- they were intended to limit human exposure to the toxin and were expected to be in place during summer months. Some were, but other riverside parks in Midland and downstream are still unlabeled.

Henry wonders if the present DEQ is being bound and silenced by local lawmakers who stepped in this June with threats to abolish the Waste and Hazardous Materials Division of the DEQ and to cut the director's pay.

The suggestions for budget slashing came with the comments: A "message of intent" for a department "out of control."

"I think most of the DEQ is willing to work for us, but they're being gagged," Henry said.

The threats to budgets and the dwindling of communication that followed were prefaced by a City of Midland community meeting on the topic of dioxin, where more than 1,500 residents listened, many becoming outraged at DEQ suggestions to remove and replace a top layer of Midland soil.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm commented that emotions needed to be "cooled down," and handed the task of mediating meetings between Dow and the DEQ to Lt. Gov. John Cherry.

Cherry could not be reached this week for comment on ongoing meetings. He was quoted this month in Michigan Information and Research Service as saying an announcement is on the way on an agreement between Dow, the DEQ, environmentalists and residents of Midland County.

But, Cherry said in the MIRS publication: "The picture is far from complete. I would rather have a comprehensive picture about the scope of the problem than get people excited about dioxin levels in one little spot."

Egerer said he was surprised by the mention that an agreement taking residents' concerns into account is in the works. "Midland Matters has not been contacted," he said.

Neither has Henry, or the two dozen who addressed the state by letter.

Despite the lack of communication, MDEQ Director Steven Chester told the Daily News that progress is being made, and that updates will come soon. The silence is unrelated to budget activities or closed-door politics, he said.When asked if the department feels threatened, as Henry suggested, he said "no."

"Our mission is to protect human health and the environment. We're not going to sugar-coat anything," Chester added.

He thinks any comparison of Granholm's administration to Engler's is unfair.

"We are a very open administration. I think we go out of our way to communicate with the environmental community, the residents and the Legislature."

He said there hasn't been a lot of communication, because there haven't been a lot of meetings -- "less than a handful." Summer vacation schedules have been a problem.

"It's not as if we're sitting on our hands," Chester said. "We've run into a situation where it was hard to work with everyone's schedules."

He added that agencies have been working closely to devise plans for a bioavailability study and a response to a recent Dow study of dioxin content in wild game living on the flood plain. Interim activities to limit dioxin exposure also are in the works.

Chester said there are plans to come to the area in September to host one or more community meetings explaining what lies ahead and asking for community input.

State Rep. John Moolenaar said he understands that residents are feeling left out. "I do feel the urgency as I meet with residents of the community," he said, adding that care and time must be taken. "We need to move in a positive way so this can be resolved once and for all with the EPA and DEQ."

A meeting between the lawmakers, Lt. Gov. John Cherry, Dow and the DEQ is scheduled for Sept. 15, he said. "If there isn't a draft of a plan that comes out of that meeting, I will be very disappointed with the administration."

Moolenaar said part of the delay has been in solving internal problems within the DEQ. "The first step has been for the administration to speak with one voice. The DEQ put forth an agenda that lacked a clear endpoint."

©Midland Daily News 2004


For additional articles like this one, go to the Tittabawasse River Watch web site www.trwnews.net for complete coverage of the Tittabawassee River Dow Chemical dioxin contamination saga. . The Newspaper / Media page of our site contains an extensive archive of media articles dating back to January 2002. The source organization's web site link is listed to the right of the article, visit often for other news in our area. The Newspaper / Media page may be accessed by scrolling down to the bottom of the CONTENTS section and clicking on the Newspaper/Media link.