by Duane Craig
Dioxin contamination cleanup in Michigan’s Saginaw River watershed will no doubt continue being stalled now that the political winds have shifted strongly conservative. The polluter, Dow Chemical, and the chemical industry in general, are robust contributors to Republican candidates and spend millions on lobbying members of Congress each year.
The contamination problem was first reported by Dow in 1978 when dioxin was found in fish caught from the Tittabawassee River. Over the following seven years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) did a number of studies to assess the problem and finally said there was no problem since the level of dioxin contamination was below the federal action level of 1,000 parts per trillion (ppt).
Fast forward to April 2000 and the flood plain of the Tittabawassee/Saginaw River had concentrations of dioxin as high as 2,200 ppt. The report of the Phase II Sampling Study said dioxin contamination of the floodplain south of Midland was “pervasive,” and eggs from free-range chickens in that area had elevated dioxin as well, leading the report to question the safety of food produced on the plain.
A recent study done by the University of Michigan, and funded by Dow, reported “consuming beef from cattle raised in the flood plain of the Tittabawassee River is associated with increased serum levels of 23478-PeCDF. This strongly suggests that exposure pathways from contaminated soil through the food chain to human consumption can be an important source of dioxin exposure, and should be avoided.” But the report also concluded that “contaminated soils have no direct relationship to serum dioxin levels, and that there is no direct exposure pathway from soil to body burden of dioxins.” That study found dioxin concentrations as high as 12,000 ppt.
Some wonder why it is taking so long for the EPA to get cleanup underway, and a recent news report shows the agency delayed a promised lowering of the action level at the request of the American Chemistry Council, by far the biggest spender of all chemical industry lobbyists. According to records at OpenSecrets.org, Dow Chemical spent $5.8 million in lobbying activities in 2010, while the American Chemistry Council spent $7 million.
But, even beyond their deep pockets of political influence, companies like Dow employ a lot of people - 6,000 in Michigan alone. Those people vote. For most people, voting is based on short-term issues. The relatively long-term effects of dioxin in the soil and in the water don’t stand a chance against the short-term fear of economic uncertainty. And so, in the end, people vote for and sort of get what they want -- at least in the short term.
Germany is having its own problems with dioxin and you can compare how it is being dealt with there by reading more here.