WHERE SOME SEE VILLAIN, OTHERS SEE BAD FICTION
By Jeremiah Stettler
The Saginaw News
Sunday, April 4, 2004
Some say a villain lurks along the Tittabawassee River, masked in the gardens, flower beds and shrubbery of riverside residents. It’s a thief, they cry.
But instead of taking their silver, this miscreant has stolen their property values and health, they say.
Nonsense, others reply. This “thief” is fiction.
The real villains are the fear-mongers who have cast a shadow of suspicion over their riverside neighborhoods, stealing property values through perception rather than reality.
So goes the debate along the embattled Tittabawassee River, where the state Department of Environmental Quality has unearthed high levels of dioxin, a combustion-related pollutant.
The contaminant has cut the community deep, creating a chasm in public opinion over the purported health effects of dioxin and the validity of a potentially far-reaching class-action lawsuit against the accused polluter, Midland-based Dow Chemical Co.
Some residents are enraged, spouting, “If (Dow) had come down the river with guns and arrows and shot me, they wouldn’t have done any more damage.” Others call dioxin research a “junk science” that money-hungry residents are using to bleed Dow financially.
Somewhere in between are most Tittabawassee River residents, who have watched from the sidelines as the dioxin debate has pitted resident against resident in a dispute over whether riverside properties really are at risk.
Susan E. Conley, 41, won’t let her children run barefoot in the back yard anymore.
She even has moved the swing set from a low-lying portion of her property where the state Department of Environmental Quality unearthed a dioxin level of 233 parts per trillion – more than double the state health standard of 90 parts per trillion.
“You hear people say, “A little dirt won’t hurt anyone,” Conley said. “But it’s not like that in our back yard.”
Conley is among nearly 170 residents suing Dow. She can’t escape fears about a toxin that prompted state regulators to declare her property and others a hazardous waste “facility” in February 2002.
She shudders when her daughter sucks her thumb after playing in the back yard and balks when her son wants to mow the lawn with his dad. Conley said her involvement in the lawsuit is not about greed. Rather, she wants to recoup the property value that is lost when she lists dioxin on the seller’s disclosure.
“I don’t expect to get rich out of this,” she said. “But maybe it would pay our house off so we can dump it.”
The lingering question, which has left scientists bickering and Tittabawassee River residents arguing, is whether Conley’s fears are legitimate.
Leonard F. Heinzman, 57, said the dioxin claims are junk science. “I had my concerns early on, but the science doesn’t back up all the hype and all the fears,” said Heinzman, who has lived along the river for nine years. “This is a non-health issue.”
He has watched litigation mounted by embittered residents and cursed the media frenzies over purported dioxin-related harm. He says the fear-mongering is hurting his neighborhood and creating a public perception that ultimately could reduce his property values.
“A very small group of people are tearing down our neighborhood and community in the eyes of the public,” Heinzman said. “It is ridiculous. It’s giving this whole area a black eye.”
The Tittabawassee River remains awash in conflicting opinions about the validity of a dioxin-related lawsuit against Dow.
Some residents wonder whether the dioxin threat is legitimate or whether it is the latest environmental scapegoat for the community’s ills.
Norman B. Berger, a Chicago-based attorney who specializes in environmental litigation, believes there is enough scientific evidence of dioxin-related harm to justify claims against Dow.
“Dioxin is a highly toxic compound,” he said. “When they measure it in parts per trillion, that shows you how dangerous it is.”
Berger, who has engaged in dioxin-related litigation across the country, said the pollutant has caused verifiable health effects in humans ranging from increased cancer rates to immunodeficiencies to a severe acne-like condition known as chloracne. “This is not an issue like electromagnetic fields, where people think they might have a problem,” he said. “Dioxin has been shown to be a carcinogen.”
Michael D. Shaw, a biochemist and chief executive officer of the gas-detection company Interscan Corp. in Los Angeles, doesn’t dispute the science. Dioxin is “extraordinarily toxic,” he said.
However, he said dioxin levels along the Tittabawassee generally are too low to cause adverse health effects.
“This is classical junk science,” Shaw said of the Saginaw suit. “There is a tendency to try to shake down a corporation under the cover of legitimate claims.”
In places where dioxin levels do cross the federal health standard of 1,000 parts per trillion – which he considers protective of human health – he said residents may have valid claims.
But those people are better served by seeking relief individually, rather than splitting a high-dollar class-action sum among hundreds of parties and a handful of attorneys, he said.
What lies beneath
The contaminant that haunts the Tittabawassee is a compound known as dioxin, a byproduct of combustion.
It is not a single pollutant, as the name implies, but a family of chemicals whose members have similar toxic effects but differing degrees of potency. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has labeled the most egregious toxin – 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin – a known cancer-causer in humans. The mixture of chemicals that people typically are exposed to, however, falls into a “likely human carcinogen” category.
Federal health officials have linked the contaminant to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, birth defects, blood disease and increased cancer risks in studies of people who have suffered high exposure.
They also noted changes in liver enzymes, hormonal effects and problems with nervous system development in many species, including humans. What is missing from the Tittabawassee River debate is an indication of how much dioxin is entering residents’ bloodstreams because of soil contamination.
The state Department of Community Health doesn’t know. Neither do experts who helped develop the EPA’s reassessment of dioxin.
State health officials hope to someday provide those answers. Officials launched a pilot study of dioxin levels in 25 Tittabawassee River residents this year that may lead to a more comprehensive investigation.
In the meantime, the scientific community has left the door ajar for speculation.
what state regulators do know is that soil samples along the Tittabawassee river showed dioxin levels that exceed state and federal health standards – levels that have prompted state-mandated cleanup efforts by Dow.
The chemical company has submitted plans to the Department of Environmental Quality that call for broadening residential soil sampling, erecting community education centers and covering public parks and boat launches along the Tittabawassee with new vegetation, soil and mulch.
State and corporate officials then will hammer out a more comprehensive work plan by next year.
Back to the courtroom
The day of reckoning is approaching for a lawsuit that could envelop more than 2,000 properties along the Tittabawassee River.
Saginaw County Chief Circuit Judge Leopold P. Borrello was to decide this week whether to grant class-action status to the lawsuit against the company. Residents claim that Dow destroyed property values and exposed people along the river to increased health risks.
On the one-year anniversary of the lawsuit, however, Borrello delayed a hearing – the fifth date Borrello has pushed – to Wednesday, June 9, to allow Dow to interview two expert witnesses and a state Department of Environmental Quality official presented by residents.
He also asked that residents certify in writing that they have handed over all documents requested by Dow. That confirmation is due Friday (April 9th).