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Big companies fight back on river clean-ups

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The Environmental Protection Agency was to be in Ft Edward last night for an information session on the dredging of PCB-laden sediment from the Hudson River. The $780 million project is expected to take six years. It's the biggest clean up of a river in the country. The first phase of the cleanup concluded in October.

PCBs are considered probable carcinogens. General Electric plants in Fort Edward and neighboring Hudson Falls dumped PCB-contaminated wastewater into the Hudson for decades before PCBs were banned in 1977. GE has been doing the clean up, supervised by the EPA. They'll review this past summer's work over the winter. The next dredging work is expected in 2011.

GE fought the plan to dredge PCBs for years. Spokesman Mark Behan told the Albany Times Union the company has not committed to continue to pay for the clean up when dredging resumes.

A fight over dioxin pollution from a Dow Chemical plant in central Michigan also dates back over 30 years. It's a local issue that's made national news, like the Hudson River PCBs. And it's still unresolved, despite administration changes, Congressional hearings, and whistle-blower awards. Shawn Allee met the man who first took the issue to Congress and who feels it should make news again.

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Dioxin pollution has been present in a watershed in central Michigan for more than thirty years. People around the country might think it's just a local issue, but there was a time when this very same pollution problem made national news. In the first part of a series on Dow and dioxin, Shawn Allee met the man who took the issue to Congress and who feels it should make news again:

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan appointed Valdus Adamkus to a regional Environmental Protection Agency office. From the get-go, one of Adamkus' jobs was to study dioxin pollution that got into the Great Lakes. His office compiled a report that said dioxin is a cancer risk, and that a Dow Chemical plant in Michigan was responsible for some dioxin pollution.

Adamkus says his bosses in Washington called this report "trash."

Adamkus: "We simply refused to retreat from our findings."

Allee: "Did they ask you to retreat from your findings?"

Adamkus: "Yes, unfortunately we almost got instructions, let's use a mild word, to change our report, and that came from the highest levels. And that brought us to Congressional hearings, which probably the entire country was watching on TV networks."

Koeppel (ABC Archive ): "An official at the EPA today said the Dow chemical company was allowed to participate in the redrafting of a report on dioxin contamination that had been critical of Dow. And that official charged that Dow's involvement was at the direction of the EPA's acting chief."

That was March 18, 1983, and ABC's Ted Koeppel wasn't the only one covering the Congressional hearings.

All the TV outlets caught this line from Adamkus ...

Adamkus ( ABC Archive ): "It's unethical, unusual, unprofessional to get the internal document approved by outside company."

So, higher-ups in the EPA allowed Dow to edit the report critical of the company. But, in some ways, Adamkus won. His boss got ousted and Ronald Reagan gave Adamkus a civil service award for integrity.

As for Dow Chemical's involvement?

For a month, I asked for comment.

A Dow spokeswoman said the company was interested in talking about the future, not the past.

Adamkus eventually left the EPA - he became President of Lithuania. But back in the US, there was a surprising follow-up to his fight over dioxin.

Mary Gade was a young staff attorney back when Adamkus was on TV. Twenty-three years later, President George W. Bush appointed her to Adamkus' old job. When Gade arrived - dioxin was still a problem in Michigan.

"My staff in the region characterized this as probably the worst dioxin contamination in the country."

And, she saw it as a national issue.

"You'd like to expect that your government will function appropriately, that corporations will act responsibly and that you can be assured of a safe environment for you and your family."

So, Gade ordered Dow Chemical to clean up some hot spots.

"They'd either do the work themselves or the federal government would do the work and we'd sue Dow to cover our costs."

Michigan politicians complained about Gade, and some state officials felt some of her actions were counterproductive. In May 2008, she was forced to resign.

Gade told the Chicago Tribune, it was for being tough on Dow.

The EPA hasn't commented on that. Dow denies involvement.

Recently, Mary Gade's old boss, Valdus Adamkus, returned to his old EPA office to say hello. He asked about the dioxin problem in Michigan, and he learned it's still around - after all these years, and after all the trouble he and Mary Gade got from it.

"When I hear from them what enforcement actions are being still considered, and that they are not big progress in that respect, that's what really bothers me and to me this is inexcusable."

Dow and the EPA are negotiating a final resolution on cleanup right now.

But Valdus Adamkus knows details need to be worked out, and he says it's been promised before.

"God help them. I hope this is really coming to the end."

For The Environment Report, I'm Shawn Allee.

Copyright © 2009. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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