Based on year 2000 data, researchers at the Political Economy Research Institute determined that Dow Chemical was ranked eleventh among corporations in a measure of toxicity of airborne pollutants emitted in the United States, releasing more than 14 million pounds of toxins into American air in that year. (The statistics given are not correlated to the volume of production.) According to United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents Dow has some responsibility for 96 of the United States' worst Superfund toxic waste dumps, in tenth place by number of sites. One of these, a mining site, is listed as the sole responsibility of Dow: all the rest are shared with numerous other companies. Fifteen sites have been listed by the EPA as finalized (cleaned up) and 69 are listed as "construction complete", meaning that all required plans and equipment for cleanup are in place.
One region suffering from toxic contamination is Michigan, where dioxin has been spilling into nearby waterways for years. Believe it or not, a top Bush administration official, Mary Gade, had worked to pressure Dow Chemical to own up to the clean up.
On Thursday, following months of internal bickering over Mary Gade's interactions with Dow, the administration forced her to quit as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Midwest office, based in Chicago.
Gade told the Tribune she resigned after two aides to national EPA administrator Stephen Johnson took away her powers as regional administrator and told her to quit or be fired by June 1.
Jonathan Shradar, an EPA spokesman in Washington, said Gade has been placed on administrative leave until June 1. He declined further comment, saying the agency does not publicly discuss personnel matters.
Gade has been locked in a heated dispute with Dow about long-delayed plans to clean up dioxin-saturated soil and sediment that extends 50 miles beyond its Midland, Mich., plant into Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. The company dumped the highly toxic and persistent chemical into local rivers for most of the last century.
Many local residents see Dow as a lifeline in region plagued by plant closings and layoffs. But all along the two wide streams that cut through this old industrial town, signs warn people to keep off dioxin-contaminated riverbanks and to avoid eating fish pulled from the fast-moving waters. Officials have taken the swings down in one riverside park to discourage kids from playing there. Men in rubber boots and thick gloves occasionally knock on doors, asking residents whether they can dig up a little soil in the yard.
Gade, appointed by President Bush as regional EPA administrator in September 2006, invoked emergency powers last summer to order the company to remove three hotspots of dioxin near its Midland headquarters.
She demanded more dredging in November, when it was revealed that dioxin levels along a park in Saginaw were 1.6 million parts per trillion, the highest amount ever found in the U.S.
Dow then sought to cut a deal on a more comprehensive cleanup. But Gade ended the negotiations in January, saying Dow was refusing to take action necessary to protect public health and wildlife. Dow responded by appealing to officials in Washington, according to heavily redacted letters the Tribune obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Regional EPA administrators typically have wide latitude to enforce environmental laws, but in April Gade drew fire from officials in Washington after she sent contractors to test soil in a Saginaw neighborhood where Dow had found high dioxin levels. The levels in one Saginaw yard were nearly six times higher than the federal cleanup standard, and 65 times higher than what Michigan considers acceptable.
On Thursday, Gade said of her resignation: "There's no question this is about Dow. I stand behind what I did and what my staff did. I'm proud of what we did."
Dioxin, measured in trillionths of a gram because it is so toxic, was a manufacturing byproduct of the herbicide Agent Orange and other chlorinated chemicals. Company documents show Dow knew by the mid-1960s that it could make people sick or even kill them. Citing years of independent studies, the EPA says dioxin causes cancer and disrupts the immune and reproductive systems, even at very low levels.