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As floodwaters bear down on Dow Chemical, worries about water toxins

Flood waters seeped into containment ponds at the Dow Chemical complex in Midland on Wednesday, setting off concerns that further incursions could send toxic chemicals washing downstream, unraveling years of environmental cleanup in a single day.

“It's a disaster — a public health risk, possibly a wildlife risk, and it's gonna cost a lot of money,” said Allen Burton, director of the Institute for Global Change Biology at the University of Michigan, and editor-in-chief of the academic journal Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry.

The Edenville dam that failed Tuesday forced the evacuation of 10,000 residents and prompted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to ask for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Resulting flood waters ravaged river banks and could expose deeply buried contaminants — despite efforts that included reinforcing stretches of land with native plants to stabilize soil and prevent chemicals from leaching into the river. 

“Worst case scenario, this is going to destroy 13 years of efforts to clean this river,” said Terry Miller, chairman of the Lone Tree Council, a Bay City-based environmental nonprofit organization.

The chemical giant, meanwhile, sought to reassure the public.

Material from a containment pond had mixed with flood waters, but it “does not create any threat to residents or environmental damage,” the company said Wednesday in a statement. “There has been no reported product releases.”

Bridge called and emailed the company’s representatives seeking an interview, but received no response.

Dow had ceased all company operations by mid-morning Wednesday except for those necessary to monitor and manage any chemical leak concerns, the company said on its Facebook page.

A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy said it’s too early to assess environmental damage.

“Their brine pond is inundated with river water, but otherwise, we’re told, Dow’s protective measures are holding,” the spokesman, Nick Assendelft, told Bridge in an email. “Once we can safely get into the flooded area, we will evaluate the impacts.”

Tom Zimnicki, water program director with the Michigan Environmental Council, said he worries about aging Michigan dams and infrastructure located close to an industrial facility. 

“The case in Midland is, unfortunately, a good example of what happens when critical infrastructure failures lead to a whole host of other human health and environmental issues,” Zimnicki said.

The Tittabawassee River flows next to the Dow site, which began operating in 1897 and over the years has produced more than 1,000 organic and inorganic chemicals, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The company produces a host of chemical products, from agricultural grain preservatives and coatings used in construction and manufacturing processes, to airplane deicer fluids and silicone powders used in cosmetics.

Dioxins and furans, byproducts formed during the manufacture of chlorine-based products, may cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system and other health issues, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. 

A 2006 study by the University of Michigan found that people who lived in the Midland and Saginaw areas for the years from 1960 to 1979 were likely to have higher levels of dioxin chemicals in their blood compared to people who lived elsewhere. Researchers believe Dow’s past airborne emissions are to blame. Although the company’s dioxin releases have dramatically declined since then, chemicals from past releases have settled into area soil and run off into the river sediment.

Dioxins take centuries to break down in the environment. They remain at elevated soil levels in the Tittabawassee floodplain and elsewhere in the Midland area and points downstream, as well as in the flesh of area fish, game and eggs from chickens raised in the floodplains. Because of the area’s contamination, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services advises against eating certain types of fish from the river

The Tittabawassee downriver from Dow is a federal Superfund site that stretches several miles downstream, but contamination extends to more than 50 miles downstream into the Saginaw Rivers and into Saginaw Bay, according to the EPA.

After a court showdown with environmentalists that began in 2003 and eventually involved what was then the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the EPA, Dow agreed to clean up the river — an effort that has stretched for 13 years and along an 18-mile stretch, Miller said.

Last November, Dow further agreed to a $77 million settlement that would fund environmental restoration projects to restore fish and wildlife habitats polluted by dioxins and other toxins and establish new recreation areas.

Ultimately, it’s unclear precisely what chemicals could be released into the flood waters, U-M’s Burton said. Dow’s announcement that its ponds had been flooded did not elaborate on the chemical contents of the ponds.

Burton said flood waters also could rupture storage tanks at the 1,900-acre site, releasing chemicals, contaminated sediments and soils downstream and into farmland, residential areas and recreational sites.

“I've driven along [the river], and it’s just one cabin after another in some of the stretches,” Burton said. “It is very much a recreational waterway, despite being a superfund site.”

“Probably only Dow knows what's in those ponds. It is probably a wide mixture of compounds” he said, noting that such details will have to be reported to federal and state regulators.
Past flood events have caused discharges of untreated sewage from Dow’s facility and public water systems, according to local news reports.

The EPA, in an email to Bridge, said it will deploy personnel if requested by FEMA or the state, and it said it will work with Michigan EGLE to evaluate any chemical releases. 

“At this time, Dow has reported no chemical releases to the river,” according to the email.

Floodwaters pose their own health concerns 

Health officials Wednesday warned area residents about the health risks of floodwaters, saying their wells could be contaminated with disease-carrying bacteria, in part, from overwhelmed sewage systems.

In Midland, which emergency officials had predicted could soon be under as much as nine feet of water, the water was still safe to drink from the municipal water system. Several township systems also remained stable, said Fred Yanoski, Midland County health officer.

But countless other residents around Midland pull water from wells that might soon be under flood waters. Those residents would need to have waters tested for bacterial contamination and be disinfected, Yanoski said.

Many live in flood plains and “know the drill by now,” but the unprecedented flooding will reach more wells never before breached, he said.

Public health officials also were assisting five emergency shelters, as well, where emergency personnel were trying to balance the needs of thousands of displaced residents with protocols for social distancing and personal protection equipment necessitated by the continued COVID-19 outbreak.

Health staff assisted at emergency shelters, where Red Cross and other staff and volunteers worked with displaced residents against a backdrop of COVID-19 concerns.

“People are being screened,” Yanoski said “It’s certainly not a perfect world, and it’s certainly very difficult … It’s a challenge, but people need a place to go.”

Still heeding state shelter-in-place orders, staff of the Central Michigan District Health Department also fielded phone calls routed to their homes about drinking water concerns as flood waters spilled into Arranac and Gladwin counties, said Steve Hall, district health officer.

“I'm not gonna lie to you,” he said, “when you're in the middle of a pandemic and now [counties] dealing with significant flooding, it is a challenge.” 

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