After flood reached Dow, Superfund pollution site, regulators have yet to test water

Mike Martindale Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Federal, state and local offices revealed Thursday that 48 hours after two dams broke in central Michigan, no one knows the extent of the potential environmental danger from the water that forced thousands of people from their homes.

Federal and state agencies contacted by The Detroit News said in the wake of this week's catastrophic flooding, it is still too dangerous to test water around sites, such as the sprawling Dow Inc. complex, which manufactures hundreds of products. And it could be several days before investigators attempt it or have test results of what might be in the water. 

This drone photo shows the Sanford Dam, the right side of which has been breached by floodwaters, in May of 2020.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said no water quality or contamination issues had surfaced as of Thursday and Dow officials had not reported any chemical discharges from its Midland facility.

Concerns arose Wednesday after Midland-based Dow confirmed that floodwaters following the breach of two area dams — the Edenville and the Sanford — had comingled with an on-site containment pond used for stormwater and brine system/groundwater remediation, but the company said the material in the pond does not pose any risk to residents or the environment. 

Dow’s containment pond isn't the only concern for environmentalists in the area. Dow has a Superfund site where for years cancer-causing dioxins were released along the Tittabawassee River.

Floodwaters are likely to have moved around the sediment at the bottom of the river containing those chemicals. Soil along the river banks containing the chemical was removed and replaced over a several-year span, and there’s concern that the new soil has been upheaved, exposing toxic soil that lies beneath.

The EPA said protocol calls for Dow to first report its "post-flood" assessments to the federal agency before its investigators would visit the site. That disturbs Cyndi Roper, a Michigan senior policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Sanford's main street, W. Saginaw Street is flooded.

"We believe it's a very bad idea to leave the post-flood assessment up to Dow — or any responsible party," she said in a statement. "If EPA is taking this approach, they are allowing the fox to guard the henhouse; it's a conflict of interest."

Experts interviewed Thursday by The News said it is not uncommon to hold off on immediate testing.

“Right now during the flooding stages, there really is not much you can do,” said John Newsted, an ecotoxicologist and adjunct professor at Michigan State University who also works as a consultant for Ramboll, a German engineering company.­­

“Whenever you see a natural disaster, like hurricanes down South, generally nothing really happens until the waters recede and they can actually start to get a handle on what’s where and what needs to be done after that.”

It's dangerous to put people in the floodwaters because of the currents that could easily capsize a boat, and "God knows what's under the surface of the water," Newsted said.

"It's dangerous to be out on waters like that because there's all sorts of stuff floating down the river. "Right now, I would be more worried about the bacteria in the water than I would be about the chemicals at this point."

In a statement, the EPA said it "is prepared to assist the State of Michigan in assessing and responding to any public health and environmental impacts from the Tittabawassee River Superfund Site and Dow’s Midland facility due to the ongoing flooding. EPA emergency response personnel will be deployed to the area if requested by FEMA or the State.”

The agency noted the failed dams are upstream from Dow’s Midland facility and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is the lead environmental agency overseeing the facility. EPA is coordinating with the state agency to evaluate any releases from the facility, but “at this time, Dow has reported no chemical releases to the river.”

The EPA also noted that downstream from Dow is the Tittabawassee, Saginaw River and Bay Superfund site. One fear is that flooding could stir up cancer-causing dioxins in the river downstream from the federal Superfund site.

Over the years, contaminated sediment was laid at the bottom of the Tittabawassee River by production at the 1,900-acre Dow facility.

“The state will need to do sampling of the river water as soon as it’s safe to do so,” said Allen Burton, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Michigan. “The bigger worry for me is actually the contaminants that stick to soil and sediment particles and settle in people’s yards and river banks. That’s the extensive sampling that’s going to have to be done because chemicals tend to bind to particles.”

But like Newsted, Burton says the testing will have to wait.

“Right now, you don’t worry with public health issues because people aren’t in contact, but once that water is down and people start returning … they are going to need to know what level of contamination is there,” Burton said.

Another concern Newsted has is what’s in the sediment that broke off the dams.

“There are a lot of different things going on right now. Nothing can be done until the waters go down, but once the waters go down, there will probably be a pretty comprehensive evaluation of what potentially could come from those two dams,” Newsted said.

Nick Assendelft, an EGLE spokesman, said Dow will monitor and sample the discharge from their wastewater treatment plant “once they restart discharging to the river.”

“When it is safe to do, there will also be river sampling,” he said.

Assendelft said Dow’s brine pond has mixed with river water, and that the company will look into it.

“Once the water recedes and conditions are safe, they will do further investigations,” he said. “EGLE is in regular contact with Dow and stands ready to assist.”

Kyle Bandlow, a Dow spokesman, said late Thursday its focus is “shifting into a clean-up and recovery mode.”

“We have begun implementing site recovery plans and will continue to advance site assessments as the situation safely allows,” his statement said. “This plan includes an inspection of all facilities and remediation assets along the Tittabawassee River as floodwaters recede.”

Bandlow said there were “no reported product releases and no reported employee injuries.” Only essential staff remained on-site to monitor the situation and assess potential impact.

“All other employees and supporting contractors will be contacted by their leaders for approval to return to site over the next few days.”

Dow Michigan Operations has Dow Performance Silicones production assets on-site, as well as research and development and I-park infrastructure assets, Bandlow said. The silicones assets are in an area that has not been impacted by the floodwaters and were not expected to be offline for an extended period of time.

EGLE's Assendelft was not aware of any testing to date of other waters from the flood. He said regarding drinking water, concerned residents should check with their local health officials about water quality and “whether it is safe to drink.”

Several cities contacted by The News Thursday said there have been no reported concerns from residents.

The city of Midland’s drinking water supply comes from Lake Huron and is safe from exposure. Midland also supplies water to Sanford, Edenville Township and Hope Township.

“There isn’t an impact,” said Peter Schwarz, director of water services for Midland. “Our water supply is 60-some miles away from here. All of our assets in town are above ground.”

Residents on the Bay County water supply system, including those in Bay City, can safely drink their water because it comes from Lake Huron, said Bill Bohlen, who oversees the county department of water and sewer.

Additionally, the flooding has not impacted the Great Lakes Water Authority’s service area and its water source, said Cheryl Porter, COO of water and field services for the authority, which operates five water treatment facilities that draw from Lake Huron and the Detroit River.

“Though there is no direct concern to the GLWA water supply, GLWA will continue to monitor its source water and treated/finished drinking water to ensure that it remains of unquestionable quality,” Porter said in a statement.