Scientists say it could be weeks or longer before the environmental fallout is understood after two overstressed dams breached in eastern Michigan, jeopardizing a sprawling Dow chemical plant that already has been under scrutiny for causing decades of local water contamination.
Catastrophic flooding caused the Tittabawassee River to crest at more than 35 feet May 20. The pressure of the floodwater caused the Edenville hydroelectric dam to break, unleashing a torrent of water from what was once the dammed-up Wixsom Lake.
As the lake emptied, the Sanford dam further downstream also failed, forcing the evacuation of more than 10,000 people from the Midland area. The flooding also overtook parts of the Dow chemical plant. The multinational chemical company is headquartered in Midland, where it operates a chemical production facility along the Tittabawassee River. The Dow plant is the largest chemical plant in the United States.
A century of pollutants
The same plant has been making chlorine-based products in Midland since the early 1900s. For decades, the company has discharged dioxins into the river. The chemical compounds are known to cause a multitude of adverse health effects, including reproductive harm and cancer. The pollutants have accumulated in the river’s sediment and flood plans for nearly a century and stretch 50 miles downriver, merging into the Saginaw River and Saginaw Bay.
The threat of contamination is so severe in normal circumstances that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been overseeing cleanup efforts of the local pollution since 2012. Dow capped the polluted sediment remaining at the site ahead of the predicted floods. As the water levels go down, it will become clearer whether the polluted sediment was released back into the river and dispersed.
Poor environmental stewardship, planning
Bill Muno, EPA’s former superfund director for the region, told FOX 2 Detroit that while Dow likely planned for a flood, he doesn’t think the company took into consideration “something as egregious as a dam failure” and the high-velocity water that goes with a disaster of that magnitude.
The floodwaters also breached a containment area at the facility where toxic waste is dumped, potentially transferring the pollutants into the river.
How badly the flooding affected the Dow facility also remains uncertain. Parts of Midland were expected to be submerged under nine feet of water, stoking fears that chemicals from the plant could be carried by the floodwaters to residential yards in surrounding neighborhoods.
Dr. Allen Burton, professor of environmental sustainability at the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), told FOX 2 Detroit that he knew there was “going to be a big problem” with the two nearly 100-year-old dams.
He said the owner of the dams, Boyce Hydro Power LLC, has been warned for 13 years about the ability of the dams to withstand major flood events. The flooding has displaced more than 11,000 people from their homes. The floodwaters are expected to recede over the course of several days.
Toxic exposure can cause devastating health effects and leave victims with mounting medical bills. Our firm is experienced in these type cases. Toxic chemical exposure may occur over a long period of time at low doses, or serious injury may occur in a single incident involving a high concentration of chemicals or other toxins. In particular, Beasley Allen lawyers in our Toxic Torts Section are investigating water contamination cases related to PFC. If you have any questions, contact Rhon Jones, Rick Stratton, or Ryan Kral, lawyers in the Section.