MIDLAND—As Michelle Hurd Riddick and Terry Miller, longtime central Michigan environmental activists, gazed out over the region from a small plane they’d chartered Friday to assess the damage from this week’s historic flood, their reaction was a mixture of relief and despair.
The pair, of the Bay City-based Lone Tree Council, were worried they’d see obvious and acute environmental destruction caused by floodwaters overtopping contaminated sites along the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers.
But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Saginaw River Dredge Material Disposal Facility, where Riddick and Miller worried about dioxin-laden sediment escaping during the flood, appeared to have withstood the water.
Dioxins, byproducts formed during the manufacture of chlorine-based products, may cause cancer and other health issues. They are present in sediment and soils in and along the Tittabawassee and Saginaw Rivers, remnants of Dow’s past emissions.
And the damage at Dow Chemical’s Midland facility didn’t appear to be any worse than the company has already acknowledged.
Still, it’s the long-term impacts they worry about. In past big floods, Riddick said, floodwaters have carried contaminated river sediment well beyond the riverbed, into homes and yards.
It’s too soon to tell whether this flood will bring more of the same, but the signs are all there. Brown, silty water still filled much of Midland and communities downstream on Friday evening, days after the river crested.
“It’s all under water and mud,” Miller said as the plane passed over downtown Midland, with a Bridge Magazine reporter aboard.
Although the pair were on the lookout for potential environmental and public health concerns, the flight also revealed the sheer scope of devastation wrought by the floodwaters.
Large portions of Midland and nearby communities remained inundated. On the roads leading into Midland, homes have been emptied of soggy furniture, which now sit piled alongside streets.
And at Sanford Lake, the reservoir formerly held back by the since-failed Sanford Dam, there is no lake to be found. The river runs freely along its former path. The U.S. 10 bridge over the lake appears to be snapped at the seams.