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Flood raises fears of pollution at Michigan toxic waste site – Great Lakes Now

The Associated Press

By John Flesher, AP Environmental Writer

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — It took seven years to settle on a plan for cleansing two rivers and floodplains polluted with dioxins from a Dow Chemical Co. plant in central Michigan. The work itself has lasted nearly twice as long, with plenty still to do.

Now, scientists and activists fear some of the progress may have washed away with floodwaters that overwhelmed two dams this week, chasing 11,000 people from homes in and near Midland, the company’s headquarters city.

The Tittabawassee River flows past the Dow plant and eventually meets the Saginaw River, which continues into Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay. That 50-mile stretch is tainted with dioxins — highly toxic compounds that researchers say can damage reproductive and immune systems and cause cancer. The area is on the federal Superfund list of hazardous sites.

This photo provided by Maxar Technologies shows homes and other buildings surrounded by floodwaters in Midland, Mich., Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (Maxar Technologies via AP)

Regulators and company officials said Thursday it was too early to tell whether the swollen river had damaged spots that had been repaired or swept pollutants farther downstream. Dow said it would inspect each cleanup location as floodwaters recede and sample for new contamination.

The projects “held up remarkably well” during a 2017 flood “and we are confident that we will see a similar outcome this time,” spokesman Kyle Bandlow said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it would team with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to evaluate any chemical releases from the plant, although Dow had reported none. Damage from the flood three years ago was “minimal” and required only minor repairs, EPA’s regional office in Chicago said.

But a similar outcome is unlikely after this week’s considerably bigger flood, said Allen Burton, a professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan.

“There’s no reason to expect that everything would remain in the same place after a massive flood like this,” Burton said. “No scientist out there would predict that will happen.”

Erik Olson, a toxic chemicals specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said floods produced by hurricanes have covered hazardous waste sites and carried contaminated wastes long distances.

A view of the flooded area near the Sanford Dam on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. Residents were told to evacuate due to the dams on Sanford and Wixom Lakes no longer being able to control or contain the amount of water flowing through the spill gates. (Kaytie Boomer/The Bay City Times via AP)

“You can think you’ve contained toxic chemicals to a limited area, but a flood can scour that up and move it,” Olson said. “We saw that with Katrina. What happened there is exactly what we’re worrying about happening in Midland.”

In a report last year, the Government Accountability Office said EPA should take additional steps to safeguard Superfund sites from the effects of climate change, including flooding that might result from heavier downpours. It said 60 percent of Superfund sites not on federal property were vulnerable to floods, storm surge, wildfires, and sea level rise associated with global warming.

Dioxins are byproducts of some of the hundreds of chemicals manufactured over the years at the Dow plant, which began operating in 1897. It now produces silicones used in a variety of home and personal care products and electronics.

The plant also has a small nuclear reactor, used for research, Bandlow said. Dow notified the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Tuesday that it had been shut down earlier because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Liquid wastes containing dioxins from the plant were dumped into the river in the early 20th century. The compounds later were incinerated, producing air pollution that settled into sediments, riverbanks and floodplains over decades.

Their discovery along the Tittabawassee River in 2000 sparked a lengthy clash between Dow, regulators and environmental groups over the seriousness of the problem and how to fix it.

Dow began cleanup in 2007, supervised by EPA. The Tittabawassee and its banks were divided into seven segments. The first five are mostly complete. Work on the remaining two began last year.

Thousands of cubic yards of contaminated sediments have been removed and banks have been stabilized. In areas where digging up the dioxins was judged too difficult or impractical, tainted soils were covered with protective mats and deep-rooted plants.

More cleanup is planned along 21 miles of floodplains. EPA expects the Tittabawassee section to be finished next year, followed by work on the Saginaw River.

“We’ve been feeling pretty confident that this is going to be a successful cleanup,” said Terry Miller, chairman of the advocacy group Lone Tree Council and member of a community advisory panel. “But this 500-year flood is a wild card.”

Thorough inspections and analysis will be crucial to determine whether the projects are intact and need repairs, he said.

“The post-flood assessments will help identify if any additional cleanup is needed,” EPA said.

Environmentalists said they were concerned about releases of pollutants aside from dioxins, although Dow said there had been none.

“The long-term threats to the health and safety of the community are significant, given what we know is in the river and the holding ponds and the Superfund site,” said Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.




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Court: Michigan Great Lakes Line 5 tunnel deal is constitutional

The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that legislators did not violate the state constitution by allowing construction of an oil pipeline tunnel beneath a channel linking two of the Great Lakes, clearing the way for the project to proceed unless another court intervenes.

A three-judge panel affirmed a ruling last November by the Michigan Court of Claims, which upheld a law authorizing a deal between former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and Canadian pipeline company Enbridge.

They had negotiated a plan to drill the tunnel through bedrock beneath the Straits of Mackinac, which connects Lakes Michigan and Huron and divides Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas.

It would house a pipeline that would replace a 4-mile-long underwater segment of Enbridge’s Line 5, which carries crude oil and natural gas liquids used in propane between Superior, Wis., and Sarnia, Ontario.

Lawmakers approved the agreement during a lame-duck session in December 2018 over objections that the measure was drafted sloppily and rushed to enactment before Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, who criticized the deal, took over for Snyder the following month.

“The handout to Enbridge allowed the company to avoid the normal vetting process of a project of this magnitude — cutting out public comment and input,” said Beth Wallace, conservation partnerships manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes office.

Snyder and Republican legislators said the deal was struck after years of public discussion.

Attorney General Dana Nessel, also a Democrat, issued an opinion in March 2019 that the authorizing bill was unconstitutional because its provisions far exceeded what its title specified.

Enbridge requested a ruling from the Court of Claims, where Judge Michael Kelly found that lawmakers had adequately followed the constitutional requirement to express a bill’s “general purpose or object” in its title.

Appeals judges Thomas Cameron, Mark Boonstra and Anica Letica — all appointed by Snyder — agreed.

“We conclude that the title … does not address objects so diverse that they have no necessary connection,” they said in a written opinion Thursday.

The ruling was a victory for Enbridge, which says it plans to finish the tunnel by 2024.

“We look forward to working with the state to make a safe pipeline even safer,” spokesman Ryan Duffy said. “We are investing $500 million in the tunnel’s construction – thereby further protecting the waters of the Great Lakes and everyone who uses them.”

Whitmer’s office is reviewing the decision, spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

Nessel will ask the Michigan Supreme Court to take the case, spokeswoman Courtney Covington said.

“While we are disappointed by the Court of Appeals’ decision, we stand by our position that (the law) is unconstitutional,” she said.

The constitution’s provision about titles is intended to prevent deception about what bills would do.

The disputed measure’s title was lengthy, authorizing state boards to acquire and operate the planned tunnel and perform numerous other duties. Even so, Nessel argued that the bill went well beyond what the title indicated.

But the appeals judges found that “neither the legislators nor the public were deprived of fair notice” of the contents.

Nessel is pursuing a separate lawsuit that seeks to shut down Line 5 — long a goal of environmentalists who say a rupture could devastate waters and shorelines in a sensitive area home to endangered species and prized by tourists.

The 67-year-old underwater segment consists of two pipes that carry a combined 23 million gallons daily. Enbridge says the lines are inspected regularly and are in good condition. But protective outer coating has worn away in some spots and erosion has required the installation of steel braces. A barge and tugboat anchor struck the pipes in 2018.

“This daily threat must end regardless if any oil tunnel is ever constructed,” said Sean McBrearty, campaign coordinator for the group Oil & Water Don’t Mix.

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