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Dow Cleans Up Image, Not Practices

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Midwest office, Mary Gade, has said that the Bush administration forced her to resign because of her efforts to get Dow Chemical to clean up its toxic dumping in one of Michigan’s Great Lakes.

For decades, dioxin releases from Dow’s Midland, Mich., plant have contaminated local rivers; Saginaw Bay, the state’s largest watershed; and Lake Huron. Dioxin has been called "the deadliest chemical made by man," by The New York Times, among others. Usually a byproduct of combustion processes, dioxin has been linked with health effects including cancer, liver damage, severe skin diseases and reproductive health problems. In parts of Midland, dioxin concentrations have been found to be six times higher than accepted federal levels, and 65 times higher than Michigan’s accepted levels.

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

Gade worked aggressively to enforce an overdue cleanup. The Midland plant released dioxins for almost the entire 20th century. Last year, Gade used emergency powers to get Dow to clean up three areas of dioxin contamination. The company went into closed-door negotiations with the EPA, but Gade cut the meetings short, unsatisfied by what Dow was proposing. She says her actions angered officials in Washington. "There’s no question this is about Dow," Gade told The Chicago Tribune about her ousting.

For decades, Dow has been criticized for its unwillingness to comply with standards set by the EPA and state regulatory agencies. In recent years, Dow sought to combat its decidedly non-green reputation. The chemical company launched a public relations campaign of TV ads in 2006 touting a new clean image. Dow also started talking about a new set of "sustainability goals" to "improve environment, health and safety performance."

Though the company is seeking to transform its brand, regulators and environmental advocates say its practices haven’t changed much. It could well be that its image is the only thing Dow has cleaned up.

Dow first made its mark on public health as the manufacturer of pesticides like DDT. DDT was originally regarded as a miracle spray able to wipe out disease-carrying mosquitoes. It helped allied soldiers win World War II as it halted the spread of deadly illnesses like malaria or dengue fever. But the chemical was later the focus of Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring," the 1962 book about DDT in the food chain that is now credited with launching the modern environmental movement.

Dow then became noteworthy as the sole supplier of napalm to the U.S. military from 1965 to 1969. The powerful incendiary chemical was used extensively during the Vietnam War — burning both soldiers and civilians. A Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a young girl fleeing a napalm attack has became one of the most haunting images of the war. The chemical company was also a principal manufacturer of the defoliant Agent Orange, which can lead to congenital deformities in babies, even decades after it is sprayed.

Today, many residents in the American Midwest say that Dow’s anti-environment reputation is not a thing of the past.

For 25 years, the company has stalled on cleaning up dioxin-saturated soil and sediment from its Midland, Mich. plant, which has been in operation since 1897. Dioxin concentrations found in the Saginaw and Tittabawassee Rivers, the Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron have been among the highest in the country. Yet, Dow has failed to comply with EPA orders in a timely manner, according to regulators in the region.

Under the Regan administration, Dow’s dioxin contamination in Michigan led to a scandal that shook the EPA. A 1983 congressional investigation found the company had undue influence over EPA regulations. Several top EPA officials were dismissed or resigned, including the head of the agency.

Congress found that the EPA’s deputy administrator, John Hernandez, had allowed Dow to edit a July 1981 report on dioxin contamination. This edit led to the removal of a passage concluding, "Dow’s discharge represented the major source, if not the only source, of [dioxin] contamination" in Saginaw Bay and Saginaw and Tittabawassee Rivers. Other revisions included the deletion of passages linking dioxins to birth defects and reproductive health problems. The congressional investigation resulted in the dismissal or resignation of EPA Administrator Anne McGill Buford and 12 other top officials.

Dave Dempsey was the environmental adviser to Michigan’s governor, James Blanchard, in the 1980s. The Great Lakes historian and blogger says Dow has made significant efforts to dodge responsibility for toxic releases. "They ran a disinformation campaign saying [dioxin is] not a problem, and if it is a problem, it’s someone else’s problem. Twenty years later, and they’re still debating what they’re going to do about the dioxin."

Gade, the EPA officially just dismissed by the White House, was an EPA staffer during the Regan administration. If she’s right about the reasons for her being forced out of EPA, Dow continues to have ties to the federal government.

The company denies this. "With respect to our influence," said Dow spokesman John Musser, "Our influence is no greater or lesser than any other citizen. We’ve pursued our rights to be treated fairly."

That’s not to say, though, that the company hasn’t tried to have their say. In the past eight years, Dow has donated more than $1.3 million to Republican candidates and more than $300,000 to Democratic candidates. In the 1990s, Dow was the chemical industry’s top contributor to political campaigns. This year, it’s the fifth largest political donor in the industry.

The company has other political connections. Dow’s CEO, Andrew Liveris heads up the board for the American Chemistry Council, a trade association for the chemical industry that’s currently under congressional investigation for its potential influence over EPA chemical review panels.

Still, EPA press secretary Jonathan Shradar said that Dow doesn’t have sway at the agency. "No company, no industry sector has influence over the EPA," he said. "We’re guided by the law, and the actions that we take, we do so to protect human health and the environment."

When contacted by The Washington Independent, Shradar declined to comment on the reasons for Gade’s resignation. Shradar did say that Dow has been compliant with agency clean-up orders, contrary to what Gade has said.

"There’s no evidence to suggest that they’ve not been compliant," Shradar said. "They’ve fully lived up to the Superfund cleanup orders, which is our typical mechanism in this scenario."

Some experts disagree with Dow and EPA’s claims.

"That’s a joke," said Dempsey, an expert on Michigan’s environmental history, when asked what he thought about EPA’s claims. "[Dow] may have complied minimally with one or two actions or orders of EPA. But they’ve essentially done nothing to clean up the river and the Saginaw Bay for 25 years. Their overall approach to the worst dioxin contamination in North America is to run out the clock and hope that they can avoid doing a full cleanup."

Environmentalists have also questioned ties between Dow and state governments.

The Michigan environmental group, the Lone Tree Council, cites several examples of Dow’s ties with current and past administrations. In July 2004, Dow, the lieutenant governor’s office and the state’s Dept. of Environmental Quality engaged in closed-door meetings for eight months. Prior to that time, the public had been involved with meetings held by the department. "That whole process went away," said Michelle Hurd-Riddick a member of the Lone Tree Council.

Hurd-Riddick also talked about Dow’s disinformation campaign in Michigan regarding dioxins. The company circulated a community newsletter (pdf) about dioxins in the Tittabawassee River. "[It] was full of tons and tons of misinformation about dioxins and about their responsibility under the law," said Hurd-Riddick.

One section of the newsletter was entitled "No Indication of Health Effects." From that section:

“Given these new study findings, we are more confident than ever about our health conclusions that, other than chloracne among highly exposed workers, we find little indication of any health effect related to dioxin exposure in our chlorophenol workers,” said Dow Medical Director, Dr. Mike Carson.

Michigan’s Dept. of Environmental Quality and Dept. of Community Health drafted a response to correct some of the data in that document. But they discovered their response had to be cleared through the administration’s office.

"Since when do toxicologists’ responses have to be cleared through the governor’s office?" said Hurd-Riddick. "In the end, they were never able to respond [to the Dow flier]."

(Read the departments’ response here.)

Debate still surrounds Dow’s environmental standing and its political connections. That’s why some lawmakers and environmentalists are seeking answers in Gade’s forced resignation from the EPA. Gade’s comments would suggest that Dow’s relationship with the agency was the reason for her ousting. If similar actions continue to take place, the mess in Michigan may never get cleaned up.

As Gade told the Tribune, "This problem has been out there for more than 30 years, and it’s unconscionable that action hasn’t been taken."

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