Progress and Pitfalls: The Saginaw Valley Dredge Project Continues by Brett Cherry

    icon May 27, 2016
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Since the Saginaw County Dredge Material Disposal Facility (DMDF) was built at the end of Marlbourne Road in Zilwaukee Township, it has drawn intense controversy.  The DMDF has been the subject of legal battles, citizen protest, public support and scrutiny. 

The fact that the DMDF is hosted by Saginaw County, yet under administrative control by the Army Corps of Engineers, brings into question how the facility will be managed in the future. 

One major concern that has sparked wide discussion throughout the state of Michigan is whether the Dow Chemical Company will gain access to the facility for depositing toxic dredges from the Tittabawassee River. 

This was one of many issues brought to light by the Lone Tree Council and Environment Michigan in their lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers and Saginaw County that took place at the U.S District Court in Bay City before Judge Thomas Ludington this past spring.   

Judge Denies Concerns of Michigan Environmental Groups

The Lone Tree Council and Environment Michigan believe that the Corps' was in violation of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).  NEPA states that agencies must prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) "for major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment."  According to Judge Ludington's opinion statement, the court did not find the Corps' decision to not complete an EIS for the DMDF "arbitrary or capricious."  The Lone Tree Council and Environment Michigan filed a joint lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers and Saginaw County claiming that an EIS was needed to account for a wide range of environmental impacts of the DMDF. 

Concerns expressed by both environmental groups include: discharge of water carrying dioxin laced sediment into the Saginaw River, leaching of dioxin into ground water below the site, absence of flood plain storage and the possibility of Dow having access to the facility.

An EIS was completed by the Corps in 1975 for dredging the Saginaw River.  Another EIS was also prepared by the Corps for its Confined Disposal Facility located in Saginaw Bay, known as Channel Island.  The Corps is required by congressional law to clear navigational channels for established shipping routes, but when contaminants are found in river sediments to be dredged by the Corps, controversy erupts. 

Is the removal of contaminated river sediments to clear navigational channel ways justified if it produces potentially negative impacts to the natural environment and public health? 

In the state of Michigan, the Corps has responded accordingly by completing an EIS for many of its storage facilities, yet no EIS was completed for the DMDF located on Marlbourne Road in Zilwaukee Township. 

Instead, the Corps completed an Environmental Assessment (EA) that addressed environmental concerns according to their methods of investigation.  The Corps' EA was not seen as adequate for addressing all areas of concern for the DMDF by environmental groups and local citizens alike. 

The Corps was not interested in completing another EIS for an activity it has been engaged with since Congress first passed the River and Harbors Act in 1930.  But due to still fairly recent although insurmountable scientific knowledge of 210 different chemical compounds known as dioxin and their numerous impacts on the environment, including risk to human health, environmental groups in Michigan believe the site of the new facility could pose more danger than it's worth.

One major reason for the Corps to complete an EIS would be further investigation of storing river sediments from the northern Saginaw River containing high concentrations of dioxin well beyond the Michigan state level of 90 ppt. In response, the court referred to an earlier EIS done by the Corps in 1975 that addressed storage of contaminants at Channel Island.  The court agreed with the Corps' findings that dioxins would not need to be addressed directly since their 1975 EIS included an analysis and methods of dealing with similar organic compounds such as PCBs, a contaminant originating from industrial sources, especially GM's former plants in Saginaw.  

The court concluded that a Chemical Oxygen Demand test done for the 1975 EIS that measured toxic materials in the river sediment was sufficient, and that a new EIS was not needed since dioxin was part of the same "class of contaminants" analyzed by the Corps.  The court also denied the plaintiffs appeal to require a supplemental EIS to the Corps' EA that would specifically address the storage of dioxin since the Corps' 1975 EIS "addressed that concern", even though the effects of dioxin were not as widely known in the 1970s as they are today.

Other topics brought to the attention of the court by the plaintiffs were addressed similarly.  Judge Ludington disagreed with the plaintiffs' argument on all accounts, ruling in favor of the Army Corps of Engineers and Saginaw County in May.  The court's decision appears to rest primarily on data provided by the Corps' through their EA of the site, their EIS done in 1975 and historical involvement in dredging the Saginaw River.  

In his opinion statement, Judge Ludington labeled the plaintiffs' concern of Dow utilizing the facility in the future as "speculative" despite recent discourse to the contrary.  During court proceedings, the Lone Tree Council learned that the Army Corps of Engineers is the only entity that has control over third party usage of the facility. 

"It makes you wonder, said Michelle Hurd-Riddick of the Lone Tree Council, "why the board of commissioners would commit the taxpayers to a site they have no control over?" 

In the future, no EIS will be done for the DMDF, leaving environmental and public health concerns over the site brought forward by the plaintiffs unanswered by local law officials, beyond judicial ruling.  Judge Ludington refused to comment on his ruling for the Review.  Hurd-Riddick says Lone Tree was interested in pursuing an appeal with the 6th circuit federal court, but in the end did not challenge the court's decision due to high court costs of making such an appeal. 

Saginaw Valley's Toxic Dredge Facility Delayed

If the court would have ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, the DMDF would be further delayed (if completed at all) as an EIS takes much more time to complete than the Corps' Environmental Assessment.  But dredging has already been delayed due to lack of needed funding, according to Jim Sygo, Deputy Director of the DEQ. 

"It's not likely [the Corps] will be doing any dredging of the upper Saginaw this year or use of the facility," said Sygo. The Corps did complete some emergency removal of river sediment at the 6th Street turning basin of the Saginaw River, but the dredged materials were placed at the Channel Island facility. The Corps and Saginaw County originally planned for the DMDF to receive dredge materials by fall of this year, but while the site is on the brink of completion, it is not finished.  Betterment for the site in the form of a "slurry wall" must be installed before it is able to contain dioxin contaminated sediments.

The slurry wall is a requirement for the facility made not by the Corps, but the DEQ Water Bureau who drafted Saginaw County's groundwater discharge permit.  According to Jim Janiczek, Chief of the Groundwater Permits Unit, the slurry wall must be built in order to prevent dioxin from seeping through sand lenses located along the site's clay bottom.  The slurry wall should be installed at the site this summer, but the DEQ has still yet to receive construction plans for it.  The Water Bureau will also be issuing Saginaw County's "Groundwater Discharge Permit" for the site. 

This permit primarily handles the design of the site, ensuring it will contain water and contaminated sediments that enter the facility.  The permit also establishes long term ground water monitoring to ensure there is no seepage at the facility.  The Water Bureau is currently drafting the permit needed for the DMDF, but it will not be finalized until it is made public some time this summer.  Pat Bradt, County Clerk for Zilwaukee Township, says she will request a public hearing on the groundwater permit once the notification is made.

While this permit covers issues within the site, it does not set a standard for water that is decanted from the dredges and discharged back into the river.  Any water leaving the site must meet the standard s of the 401 Certification or Clean Water Act.  How the water will be filtered and then discharged into the river will be addressed by the Corps' mysterious Operation and Maintenance Plan.  The so-called "O & M plan" must address how the sediment will settle out of the river water entering the site without allowing it to go back into the river.  At this point, the DEQ does not know how this problem will be addressed and until it is resolved the site cannot receive dioxin contaminated dredges.  "Until we see the O & M plan it is difficult to say," said Sygo.

Other issues surrounding the facility must also be addressed by the O & M plan, including deed restrictions and protection of the site from wildlife, such as water fowl.  Once the O & M plan is approved by the DEQ, a public meeting will be held for further input from citizens of Saginaw County, it will be the final piece in allowing the DMDF to receive 3.1 million cubic yards of dioxin-contaminated sediments from the Saginaw River over 20 years.  In the mean time, the DMDF may not receive river dredges until the Corps' next dredging season in fall 2008.  Another well-known dredging project will begin this summer by Dow after it was ordered by the EPA to dredge toxic "hot spots" of the Tittabawassee River immediately.

At Long Last, Dow Begins Tittabawassee River Cleanup

Dow has been accused of dragging its feet when it comes to meeting deadlines for dredging the Tittabawassee River, which contains concentrations of dioxin hundreds of times above the state threshold.  The EPA responded with a "Critical and Timely Removal Action," requiring Dow to begin dredging highly contaminated reaches of the river this summer.  "I think it just came to the point where EPA believed that Dow was not making a good effort in meeting the schedules we tried to lay out," said Sygo. 

The DEQ does not expect any future surprises from the EPA other than stricter schedules for completion of the environmental remediation.  Dow has already initiated the process of dredging highly toxic regions of the river, including "Reach D" that lies just upstream of the Dow Dam in Midland.  Reach D contains an extremely high concentration of dioxin at 87,000 ppt; approximately 15,000 cubic yds of contaminated material will be removed from the area.  Other "toxic hot spots," labeled Reach O, J and K, are also scheduled for remediation.  Dow has begun the dredging process for these reaches of the river and plan to finish sediment removal of Reach D by this December. 

The contaminated sediments will then be taken to the Dow Salzburg Road Landfill June 2008.  Both Reach J and K are expected to be completed by October.  Reach K and J, located near the Caldwell Boat launch in Midland, will include burial of contaminated sediment found within the floodplain and a fence to block exposure pathways to contaminated material.  Reach O, located 6 miles downstream from the confluence of the Tittabawassee and Chippewa rivers, will be dredged and approximately 7,000 cubic yards of material will be removed from the area.

Dredged river sediments will be deposited into Geotubes and decanted water from the dredges will be treated through Dow's waste water treatment system, then discharged back into the river after it meets the standards of the Clean Water Act.  The river sediment will then be shipped in sealed trucks to Dow's hazardous waste facility on Salzburg Road.  After dredging the first 6.5 miles of the river, there is still much more work to be done.  According to the EPA, contaminants other than dioxin found in the dredged sediment of the Tittabawassee River must be identified before they can be disposed at the Salzburg Road Landfill. A laundry list of other toxic chemicals, compounds and metals, including silicone, cadmium, Chlordane and DDT have been found in the river, many of them originating from Dow industrial processes.  The EPA requested and received from Dow historical documentation of some of their chemical manufacturing processes that led to further contamination of the Tittabawassee River.  At this time, EPA is analyzing much of the data including sediment samples taken by Dow.  

During the recent Deq/Dow public meeting at the Horizons Center in Saginaw August 9th, the EPA announced that their corrective actions to accelerate removal of contaminated sediment from the river are preliminary and future remedial actions are needed to address the full extent of the contamination.  Another issue of concern is the stability of the river sediments as areas dredged downstream could later be occupied by toxic materials further upstream.  Ann Arbor Technical Services, a contractor hired by Dow, says it accounts for the stability of deposits containing dioxin and other contaminants in its Geomorph surveys of the river.  The Geomorph is the underlying method in identifying highly contaminated and eroded areas of the river.  Further Gemorph analyses of the river will be monitored by the Deq and EPA to ensure that few if any mistakes are made in sampling and eventually removing contaminated sediments from the river.   

Initial sediment samples taken from within the first 6.5 miles of the contaminated segment of the Tittabawassee River flood-plain revealed dioxin levels well above the state threshold of 90 ppt.  According to Sygo, further detailed characterization of the flood plain later revealed levels up to 87,000 ppt.  "That may not be the hottest area of the river yet," said Sygo.  Depending on where dioxin from Dow's incinerators settled further downstream, new samples could reveal higher levels.  The DEQ will take sediment samples of the next 11 mile stretch of the river using similar characterization methods used for the first 6.5 miles.  The DEQ plans to complete sediment samples of the Tittabawassee River further downstream by this fall. 

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