Will Tittabawassee Floodwaters Go Toxic?

Samuel Boden

May 27, 2020

On May 19, the National Weather Service advised people living near the Tittabawassee River in Michigan to seek higher ground immediately. The region was in the midst of what meteorologists were calling a “500-year-flood,” resulting in a catastrophic failure of the Edenville Dam. Despite years of warnings from regulators that the dam could rupture, its owners failed to make changes to reinforce the structure and increase spillway capacity. By the next day, the river had risen to a record-high 34.4 feet in the city of Midland.

Any flood of this magnitude is a tragedy, but the situation in Midland is worse: The city is home to the world headquarters of Dow Chemical Company, including a vast complex that has produced a range of toxic chemicals, including Agent Orange and mustard gas. Dow has a tarnished history in the area, responsible for contaminating the Tittabawassee River with dioxins and violating the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The area is now a Superfund site as a result.

Regulators have accused Dow of providing false information to the public, such as a newsletter stating that few negative health effects were associated with dioxin exposure. Thus, although the company stated that the flooding at its complex posed no threat to the community, its history of evasion and obfuscation suggests that its statements cannot be taken at face value.

The situation in Midland was foreseeable, and the potential disaster therefore avoidable. Midland is in a flat, low-lying area and has faced catastrophic flooding in the past, and the Edenville Dam has a long history of safety violations. In 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked the license for the dam, observing that it was likely unable to handle “the most severe combination of critical meteorologic and hydrologic conditions that is reasonably possible” in the Midland area. Although Dow implemented a flood preparedness plan, floodwaters still breached onsite ponds, suggesting that more could have been done to prepare for a flood of this severity.

Part of Dow's strategy for dealing with its failings has been to cozy up to the Trump administration. The company donated $1 million to the president's inauguration and shortly thereafter asked federal agencies to ignore findings that its pesticides are harmful to endangered species. And in an impressive example of the administration's industry-friendly staffing habits, Dow’s self-described “dioxin lawyer,” Peter Wright, is now the head of the EPA’s Superfund program. While at Dow, he led the company's legal strategy around Midland's dioxin contamination, during a period when "the chemical giant was accused by regulators, and in one case a Dow engineer, of submitting disputed data, misrepresenting scientific evidence and delaying cleanup, according to internal documents and court records as well as interviews with more than a dozen people involved in the project."

Sadly, the situation in Midland represents a nationwide problem. A 2019 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that more than 900 toxic sites across the country are in areas susceptible to flooding or wildfires. (Dow alone potentially has responsibility for 171 of those sites.) As CPR’s Toxic Floodwaters report explains, many of these sites are in socially vulnerable communities, where other factors aggravate the threats from flooding and toxic spills. For example, communities that lack access to reliable transportation and temporary housing are more likely to face prolonged exposure to toxic floodwaters and residual contamination after flooding, resulting in public health crises. According to the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index, Saginaw County, just downstream of Dow’s Midland complex, is such a highly vulnerable region.

The federal government has failed to rise to the challenge posed by extreme weather made worse by climate change and still does not require facilities to prepare effectively for such situations. The Trump administration rejected the GAO’s recommendation that federal agencies provide more clarity on how to prepare these sites for extreme weather events. And the problem is only getting worse: Climate scientists warn that “500-year-floods,” which, as the name suggests, should happen only once every 500 years, are now more like 24-year-floods. For example, a neighborhood in Houston that FEMA designated as vulnerable only to intense, 500-year rainfall events has flooded three times since 2009.

So far, there's been no evidence of flood-related toxic emissions from Dow's Midland plant, but it’s too soon to know for sure. Dow’s history of providing the public with false information means that independent research will be necessary to determine whether the floodwaters carried dioxins and other hazardous chemicals downstream, a process that experts say will require months of testing.

The fact remains that the nation’s dangerous toxic sites are particularly hazardous in light of climate change-related weather events, and the flooding in Midland should serve as a wake-up call. Rather than abdicating their responsibility and giving in to corporate pressure, federal regulators should enforce compliance with environmental laws and require comprehensive planning for disasters like this. More must be done to prevent toxic floodwaters from harming communities, by accounting for climate change in siting decisions, hardening existing facilities against extreme weather, and reducing reliance on toxic substances. While it's too late for us to prevent many of the severe storms resulting from climate change, the threat posed by toxic floodwaters can be mitigated through proper planning and enforcement.

Top photo by Flickr user erika dot net, used under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0.

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