Dioxin warnings greet Freeland residents

Published August 28, 2002 in the Midland Daily News

Beth Medley Bellor

    BAY CITY — A river runs through Midland … and deposits contamination in Freeland.

    Staff from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality met with reporters and others at the Saginaw Bay office Tuesday to offer more information about dioxin in the Tittabawassee River floodplain. On Monday, the DEQ released preliminary data from recent soil sampling; a full report is expected this fall.

    Dioxins are byproducts from certain chemical processes, and The Dow Chemical Co. is considered far and away the most likely source.

    “Below Midland, the concentrations go up substantially,” said Andrew Hogarth, acting division chief for the DEQ’s Environmental Response Division.

    In many locations, the contamination was highest at the deepest levels tested, he added. “It implies to us this was a very historical kind of problem.”

    Dow began chlorine chemistry processes about 1915 and did not begin wastewater treatment until 1937. It now has the country’s most restrictive permit for dioxin emissions.

    The DEQ has been taking soil samples inside and outside of a 100-year floodplain for the Tittabawassee — the area expected to be hit by a flood large enough to occur once a century. That led people to wonder how much of the dioxin contamination came from the area’s disastrous 1986 flood.

    “It looks like this could have preceded this flood,” Hogarth said.

    The flood in 1986 was much larger than a 100-year flood, he explained, and areas outside the 100-year floodplain — such as Thomas Township’s Imerman Park — have levels consistent with background contamination. Because dioxin also comes from activities such as burning in barrels, virtually everywhere has at least some contamination.

    Of particular concern now is Freeland Festival Park, which had levels ranging from 1,500 parts per trillion just below the surface to 3,400 ppt in a layer 12 to 15 inches down. The DEQ’s residential cleanup standard is 90 ppt.

    There is no playground equipment in the park, but it sometimes gets heavy use, particularly for Freeland’s walleye festival. Now visitors will see signs warning of dioxin contamination.

    The Michigan Department of Community Health and Saginaw County Parks and Recreation Commission worked together on the signs, which note that children are especially at risk, and that their exposure to the soil should be minimized. Visitors are encouraged to read the gold brochure available there, which was developed by the DEQ, MDCH, MDA and the Saginaw County and Midland County health departments.

    “I’m not saying people shouldn’t play in the park every day,” Hogarth said. “I’m saying that’s a decision they have to make.”

    Anyone fretting that the state is going to come in with bulldozers and stir up the floodplain should stop.

    “I doubt very much that it would be feasible to move all that soil,” Hogarth said. If indeed something beyond education is to be done, covering with clean soil is a more likely option.

    In Tittabawassee Township, worries about dioxin fall on the shoulders of an ad hoc committee established in June. It is expected to make recommendations about the park at the township board’s next meeting Sept. 10.

    Also Tuesday, some objected to a proposal for Dow to fund a health study.

    Keith Harrison, executive director of the Michigan Environmental Science Board, is involved with the study as director of the DEQ’s Office of Special Environmental Projects.

    “There’s really no other source of money,” Harrison said. The state is sifting through budget cuts and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said up front it didn’t have the funding.

    The money — once a university’s proposal is chosen and the amount is determined — might be put into escrow to allay some concern, he said. As far as the makeup of the advisory board preparing the proposal request, each stakeholder can recommend three scientists, of whom one will be chosen. The petitioners who requested the health assessment that led to the sampling have been treated as one stakeholder; Dow is another. State and federal agencies also are involved.

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