The EPA’s Motto: Our Way or the Highway

On May 2, Mary Gade, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Region 5 administrator, was forced out.

Photo:Ascanio, Creative Commons, Flickr

The choice, according to Gale, was to quit or be fired. The issue was Dow Chemical’s (DOW – $40.79) procrastination over cleaning up dioxins around its Midland, Mich. plant, a spreading disaster that now extends almost 50 miles in every direction and reaches Saginaw Bay on the shores of Lake Huron via the Tittabawassee River, on whose banks the Midland plant is located.

"Dioxin" is a generalization used to describe hundreds of chemicals in the dibenzo-p-dioxin family. The most lethal member is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD, and the toxicity of other dioxins are measured against this parameter. Dioxins are the unintentional results of many chemical processes involving chlorine, like waste incineration, chemical and pesticide manufacturing, and paper bleaching. Dioxins are also produced by forest fires and by residential wood burning.

This, charges Dow, is the true source of Michigan’s dioxin pollution, and not its Midland plant, which has been manufacturing since 1897.

As early as 1983, reports began to circulate about the dangers dioxin presented to Midland’s workers. Dow, the second largest chemical manufacturer in the world after BASF, reported at the time that it had cleaned up its act. Recent evidence makes this both unlikely and a purposeful deception.

Other chemicals that have been manufactured at the Midland plant include styrene, butadiene, picric acid, mustard gas, Styrofoam, Agent Orange, napalm, and various pesticides including Chlorpyrifos, Dursban and 2,4,5-trichlorophenol (2,4,5-T).

Chlorophenol production began in 1915, and wastes were disposed of at on-site waste ponds. When the Tittabawassee River ran high, these ponds would be allowed to overflow into the river. The government finally forbade the practice in the mid-1980’s and Dow was forced to install its own wastewater treatment facility. The company also operates a waste incinerator on site.

Appointed by Bush in September of 2006, Gade has been pushing for dioxin cleanup around the Midland plant ever since. In November, she asked for more dredging when dioxin levels in a park in Saginaw reached 1,600,000 ppt (parts per trillion), which is 17,000 times higher than needed to trigger a state cleanup alert. This is also the highest level ever recorded in the U.S.

In January, Gade suspended negotiations with Dow, exasperated by corporate foot-dragging, and instead began appealing to officials in Washington. This was apparently her first mistake, given the current administration’s bias toward business and its tendency to ignore or dismiss environmental issues.

When, in April, Gade sent contractors to test soil in the River Road #2 section, the furor reached its peak. Never mind that dioxin levels were 5,660 ppt, nearly six times higher than the federal standard mandating cleanup, and 60 times higher than the acceptable limit set by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). Dow, which has consistently maintained it is not responsible for the dioxins, and that dioxin is not a threat to people or wildlife, called in political favors and Gade was sacked.

Dow officials say the company has agreed, in principle, to cleanup, but not with the methods proposed. Michigan legislators, siding with Dow, have attempted to question the Michigan standards, or ATSDR number (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) which red-flags toxins for cleanup.

The EPA, weakened by budget cuts and frequently criticized for allowing its science to be manipulated by the current, business-biased administration, has already admitted that dioxin is a carcinogen – a report that the National Acadamies later said understated the uncertainties while overstating the cancer risk. The World Health Organization had already granted dioxin carcinogenic status, and in 2001 the National Toxicology Program upgraded the risk for 2,3,7,8-TCDD from a "probable" to a "known" carcinogen, following that pronouncement with a 2003 statement saying there was "no safe threshold" for dioxin exposure.

Gade is not the first person to leave the EPA for being a contrarian and insisting that environmental protection come before politics. In 2007, the Washington Post scooped Christine Todd Whitman’s departure as EPA head because she refused to endorse new air pollution rules favoring coal plants. Whitman now sits on the board at S. C. Johnson.

In 2003, Bruce Boler, an EPA scientist, resigned from his post because he couldn’t go along with the Army Corps of Engineers position that wetlands were a pollution source and ought to be opened to developers to clean up the problem.

In 2002, Eric Schaeffer left after 12 years with the EPA because he also couldn’t get behind the proposed air pollution rules, as did Rich Biondi, the Associate Director of the Air Enforcement Division, in 2004, closely followed by Bruce Buckheit, Biondi’s boss and head of the air enforcement division. Yet, in 1981, when EPA Deputy Administrator John Hernandez personally intervened to allow Dow Chemical to edit a July 1981 agency report about dioxin contamination, the EPA agreed to Dow’s suggested deletions (which linked dioxin to fertility problems and birth defects) wholeheartedly, clearly demonstrating that EPA employment depends on being a "team player" (read corporate shill).

Hernandez served under Ronald Reagan, the original neo-con and creator of Reaganomics, a trickle-down economic theory designed to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the rest of the country.

Since 2007, the EPA Library Network has been decimated by budget cuts, leaving no facility to serve the central U.S. Founded in 1971, the EPA Library Network originally consisted of 27 facilities across the country serving 10 regional agencies, two research centers and 12 EPA laboratories. As of today, the EPA has digitized only half the material in those defunct libraries, and says it will take until 2010 to complete the project. In the meantime, the information is unavailable, which is just how the EPA seems to want it. Lack of documentation provides complete unaccountability.

Barbara Boxer, (D – Calif.), the Senate’s Chief Deputy Whip and also Chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has charged the Bush administration with being environmental outlaws:

Every time the EPA deviates from what their scientists recommend, we know one thing for sure. People will get sick, and some will die.

In the meantime, men and women of principle are being forced to hit the road, since the EPA’s unstated "My way or the highway" policy leaves them no choice but to abandon an agency so steeped in corruption and mismanagement that it has lost sight of its original purpose.

Disclosure: I don’t own Dow Chemical stock.

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