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“This has the potential to be a major environmental disaster.”
The Dow Chemical logo is shown on a building in downtown Midland, home of the Dow Chemical Company corporate headquarters, December 10th, 2015 in Midland, Michigan. Recent news reports have indicated a possible merger between Dow and DuPont. (Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Floodwaters unleashed by a dam failure in central Michigan have reached a Dow Chemical facility and Superfund site, the company admitted Wednesday, raising the possibility that the flood could turn into a full-fledged environmental catastrophe.
At 10:00am EST, Dow announced that “there were flood waters commingling with on-site containment ponds” at its facility.
“Midland, Michigan is home to Dow Chemical, one of the world’s largest chemical companies,” Climate Power communications director Meghan Schneider tweeted Tuesday night. “Dow’s facilities appear to be at the heart of the floodwaters—this has the potential to be a major environmental disaster.”
As the New York Times reported, the danger of the breach to the chemical site is clear:
With much of Midland expected to be underwater by later on Wednesday, it was likely that the floodwaters would breach the levees designed to protect the Dow compound, said Allen Burton, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Michigan. This meant that, at the site itself, flooding could reach storage tanks, potentially releasing chemicals onto farmland and residential areas that line the river downstream, he said.
The Superfund cleanup sites are downriver from the century-old plant, which for decades had released chemicals into the nearby waterways. The concern downriver, Dr. Burton said, is that contaminated sediments on the river floor could be stirred up by the floodwaters, spreading pollution downstream and over the riverbanks.
Union of Concerned Scientists research scientist Jacob Carter told Common Dreams that President Donald Trump’s assault on environmental regulations bears some of the blame for the current catastrophe.
“This is another example of the Trump administration putting vulnerable communities in harms way by sidelining science” said Carter. “There was an Executive Order that called for Superfund sites to update their infrastructure to protect them from future extreme floods, but it was trashed by the Trump administration a week before Hurricane Harvey hit.”
“This is not a new issue,” Carter added. “The EPA has for years recognized the vulnerabilities of superfund sites, but the Trump administration continues to ignore the scientific advice and guidance from its own employees putting public health at risk.”
The flood is the result of drenching rains and a decaying infrastructure in the city that has led to the weakening of the dams holding back the Tittabawassee River.
The Sanford and Edenville dams breached, leading to water cascading toward the city of Midland, which is expected to be under nine feet of water, and the Dow plant.
According to the Washington Post:
Major flooding begins when the Tittabawassee River hits 28 feet; flood stage is at 24 feet. As of 6:30am Wednesday, river gauges reported a level of 34.28 feet and rising.
“The flooding in Midland County poses significant risks of spreading pollution from the Tittabawassee River that has suffered from decades of contamination and illegal dumping by Dow Inc.—making it one of the most contaminated rivers in Michigan,” said Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak. “High water levels also threaten the integrity of Dow’s facility, which we know houses dangerous chemicals. Michiganders deserve full transparency from Dow, state and local officials regarding any contamination that results from this catastrophic event — and the immediate cleanup of it.”
The owner of the Sanford Dam, Boyce Hydro Power LLC, was dinged multiple times by federal regulators for not repairing damages. In 2018, the company’s license was revoked, with regulators claiming Boyce had “failed for many years to comply with significant license and safety requirements, notwithstanding having been given opportunities to come into compliance.”
“The catastrophic flooding we are seeing in Midland is a culmination of the impacts of the increased strange and severe weather events that are amplified by climate change,” said Wozniak, “and this latest event highlights the importance of big thinking right now from leaders around how to plan properly with our changing climate to keep our families safe.”
Infrastructural issues like the ones in Midland run the risk of making things worse as the climate crisis exacerbates extreme weather events.
“Can we link the record rainfall in Michigan, which is collapsing dams and leading to ‘catastrophic’ flooding, to climate change?” tweeted UC Santa Barbara professor Leah Stokes. “Yes”