Why does it take 40 years to clean up a polluted river?

Jun 7, 2011

The Tittabawassee River has flooded three times already this year. Each time floodwaters carry dirt from the bottom of the river all over yards, basements, fields and parks.

This sediment is contaminated with Dioxin from Dow chemical’s plant in Midland. Dioxin has been linked to a host of health problems including cancer.

The Environmental Protection Agency has known about Dow’s dioxin contamination since 1981. The agency says comprehensive clean up will take at least 10 years. But the clean up has barely begun.

Dow does have to keep dioxin contaminated river sediment off of sidewalks and walkways in some parks along the river. Christopher Villanova is a contractor for Dow. He says he's power-washed sediment off the docks in Freeland Festival Park twice already this year.

This power-washing is what’s called an interim clean up action. Dow has to do these or risk being sued by the EPA. But interim clean up actions don’t get rid of any dioxin in the river. They are only designed to minimize people’s contact with it. Minimizing contact with a flooding river can be difficult. This year’s floodwaters have gotten so high they have covered playground sets in county parks.

There are people in Midland who don't think the river will ever be clean. Joe Butters was at Freeland Festival Park waiting for some friends who were fishing in the river.

Well, I’d like to see them dig that dump all out of there and clean it up. And they haven’t even attempted it yet. ..I don’t think it’ll happen...Because they think it’s ok.

Butters says he will eat walleye out of the river because "it doesn't stay in there too long." He said, however, that he wouldn't eat any catfish or other bottom feeders from the river due to the contamination.

The clean up process has stopped and started for thirty years. The federal and state governments keep passing the problem back and forth. Michelle Hurd-Riddick is part of a local environmental group called the Lone Tree Council. She says all along Dow has been slowing things down.

Dow is the reason. They are the reason this river is not cleaned up. There is no other reason. None whatsoever. Dow is the reason this river is not cleaned up. Because they push back.

Dow's pushback is well documented in court documents, memos, and congressional hearing testimony. The company has disputed the toxicity of dioxin and how much dioxin it takes to make people sick. They’ve also pushed back on many of the actions proposed to keep people from coming in contact with dioxin.

Dow did not want to be interviewed for this story. A spokesperson said, via email, that Dow was now on board with the EPA’s plan for clean up.

Betsy Southland is with the EPA. She says they have a signed legal agreement that will keep Dow on track. But these clean ups don’t move quickly.

I think it’s the nature of the beast. Everyone would like things to move faster but we wouldn’t want it to move so fast that we did things that were not well thought out.

The EPA’s agreement does not say what Dow will need to do for the final clean up, or how long it should take. It also doesn’t include the lower Saginaw Bay. Advocates like Michelle Hurd-Riddick says this gives Dow too much room to slow things down again.

Meanwhile, the river may continue to flood this year and every year during the clean-up process. The people in the floodplain will be stuck relying on interim clean up actions while they wait for Dow to take the dioxin out of the river.