Flooding of Dow's Midland facilities raises contamination fears at Superfund site
Midland — Dow Inc. activated its emergency operations center at its Midland facilities Wednesday after flood waters reached historic levels and mixed with chemical plant containment ponds, raising fears of an environmental disaster. Another fear: That the deluge will stir up cancer-causing dioxins in the river downstream of the federal Superfund site.
The multinational chemicals giant headquartered in Midland temporarily shut down its operations in the Michigan Operations industrial park as the failure of two dams on the Tittabawassee River forced thousands of residents to evacuate. The company's operating units were shut down except for facilities needed for safely managing chemical containment, company spokesman Kyle Bandlow said in a statement.
The potential release of any chemicals in the containment ponds is just one concern that could necessitate environmental remediation once the water recedes. The historic flood also has stirred up the contaminated sediment laying at the bottom of the Tittabawassee River put there by the Dow plant that helped build the city around it. The 1,900-acre facility abuts the river, and for years dangerous dioxins contaminated it, pushing the federal government to create a Superfund site there.
"The chemicals that are there as part of the Superfund site in the river are in the sediments and they do not break down. All this flood is doing is moving those around and possibly moving those around into the flood plain," said Allen Burton, a professor of environment and sustainability and of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Michigan. "I’m assuming Dow or the state will have to go in after and do a lot of sampling in the river and the flood plain to see if there are any pockets of contamination."
The prospect worries Terry Miller, chairperson of the Lone Tree Council, a local environmental group that pushed for years to have the site cleaned up. Miller is now the secretary of the Saginaw-Tittabawassee Rivers Contamination Community Advisory Group created through the Superfund to allow for exchange of information between residents and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"We have been working on this damn thing for 13 years with Dow, the EPA, with the state and we are real concerned," Miller said. His fear: That all of the work to stabilize contaminated banks ”may be literally eroded. I hope that’s not the case. I sincerely do. A lot of people and a lot of money have gone into this cleanup.”
To stabilize the banks, old soil was removed and new soil was put in, but there still are toxins deep in the soil that Miller is concerned will surface and make their way back into the river.
"This is a supreme test of the success of this stabilization and cleanup process," he said. "And I’m worried."
The containment pond mingling with flood waters may be less of a concern. Dow said late Wednesday that the pond is used for storm water and brine system/groundwater remediation and the material "does not create any threat to residents or environmental damage."
"The reality is there’s a massive amount of water which means a massive amount of dilution, so in all likelihood any chemicals that escape are going to be diluted below levels of concern," UM's Burton said.
Additionally, Dow said there has been no reported release of chemicals from its manufacturing facilities.
Dow is working with its site tenants and Midland County officials, and has partnered with the U.S. Coast Guard to activate emergency plans. The state's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has also been "in regular contact with Dow regarding the impacts of the flood on their facilities and are ready to assist, as needed," a department spokesman said.
Midland is where a young Herbert Henry Dow founded the Dow Chemical Co. in 1897.
Dow's Michigan Operations now encompass a 1,900-acre manufacturing site in the city where some 3,000 people work to support 10 Dow businesses that operate 26 manufacturing plants, according to the company. The site also is home to a research and development campus.
Dow in 2019 separated from the DowDupont conglomerate; the Dow Michigan Operations Industrial Park is made of Dow facilities as well as other tenant companies.
The company makes everything from automotive materials to insecticides to polymers for food and liquid packaging materials in Midland, according to its website. Dow has numerous other facilities in the city, including a corporate center that sits on 150 acres.
Last June, the Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a settlement with a Dow Silicones Corp. for the company to spend about $1.6 million on supplemental environmental projects and to pay a $4.55 million penalty to resolve several environmental violations at its Midland facility.
In November, Dow entered into an agreement with the federal, state and tribal governments to settle an environmental complaint for an estimated $77 million. The funds are to restore fish, wildlife and habitats harmed when hazardous substances were released in past decades from Dow’s manufacturing facility in Midland.
Beyond any new environmental issues at Dow's operations caused by the flood, there is also potential contamination from overwhelmed wastewater treatment plants and likely contamination from chemicals like paint and solvents from inside people's homes.
"All of that bad stuff is just getting moved around," Burton said. "There will be public health concerns in any of these zones that got flooded because you never know what’s going to be there. It’s going to be important to have a good sampling after this is over."