Dow Chemical Company’s Midland, MI, facility had repeatedly violated its Clean Water Act permits by discharging excess quantities of phosphorus, the herbicide 2,4-D, and the toxic chemical 2,4,6-TCP into the Tittabawassee River. Each of these chemicals can harm aquatic ecosystems in their own ways: high levels of phosphorus can lead to toxic algal blooms; 2,4-D, as a component of Agent Orange, kills aquatic plants; and 2,4,6-TCP, often used as a pesticide, is considered highly toxic to aquatic life. In fact, the phosphorus discharged to the Tittabawassee was carried downstream to the larger Saginaw River, which empties into Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay, and was contributing to vast areas algal “muck” extending several yards out into the bay.
In 1995, NELC brought a Clean Water Act lawsuit against Dow on behalf of the Public Interest Research Group in Michigan (PIRGIM) and local residents to stop Dow’s illegal discharges of these chemicals. After two years of extensive litigation, Dow agree to entered into a comprehensive consent decree. The settlement required Dow to pay a $1 million civil penalty, $800,000 of which was used to fund environmental projects recommended by the Saginaw Bay Watershed Sustainable Communities Initiative, a local nonprofit. In addition, the company agreed to: spend over $30 million on wastewater treatment upgrades; remove millions of pounds of dioxin-contaminated sludge from its treatment lagoons near the Tittabawassee and dispose of them in compliance with federal hazardous waste regulations; and bring its discharges into compliance with the Clean Water Act according to a specified schedule.
Additional litigation and a second round of negotiations ensued when Dow failed to meet the terms of the consent decree regarding the disposal of the toxic sludge. In 1999, NELC invited local community groups to participate in negotiations with Dow. The company had found that incineration of the wastes as required by hazardous waste regulations was both extremely costly and extremely time-consuming. The citizen groups, on the other hand, disliked incineration because of the likelihood that it was emitting dioxins into the surrounding air as it burned the wastes. With this common purpose in mind, the groups and NELC joined Dow in asking EPA for a hazardous waste treatment waiver that would allow Dow to dispose of the wastes in a state-of-the-art hazardous waste landfill on its property. EPA agreed, and in 2002 NELC and Dow obtained court approval to amend the consent decree by extending the deadline for the company to clean up its lagoon sludge and place it in the landfill, and also requiring Dow to take additional specified measures to ensure that the sludge disposal would not pose a hazard to surrounding communities; to shut down the older (and less efficient) of its two hazardous waste incinerators; to reduce its hazardous waste incineration overall; to invest in and conduct research to investigate innovative treatment methods for dioxin-contaminated wastes; and to educate its employees about dioxin risks to strengthen the corporation’s commitment to environmental and public health.