New information shows dangerous dioxins may be carried into Lake Huron from central Michigan’s flooding disaster.
MIDLAND, MI — At Midland High School, residents displaced by the flood are sleeping in the school’s gymnasium. Nine out of ten of them are senior citizens.
“They’ve been watching after us carefully,” said 77-year-old Dan Roberts. “It’s been a little hectic, but I would not complain at all.”
Roberts was a student at Midland High a half-century ago, and spent the night in its gym again. He told reporters that anyone with somewhere else to go went somewhere else. He was planning to stay with family in Flint.
But as people like Roberts make arrangements to leave temporary shelters, more Michiganders are being driven from their homes as the flooding hits downriver communities. About a dozen people were evacuated from Spaulding Township Friday morning. As the Tittabawassee and Shiawassee rivers flood, the Saginaw river they both flow into is backing up with water as well.
Massive flooding struck central Michigan early in the week. The ‘Gander reported that as a result, around 10,000 Michiganders have been displaced. Including those senior citizens at the high school, 61 Midland residents are in temporary shelters, according to city spokeswoman Selina Tisdale. As floodwaters recede, that number is going steadily down.
“The damage is truly devastating to see how high the water levels are, to see roofs barely visible in parts of Midland, and to see a lake that has been drained in another part,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who toured Midland County on Wednesday.
Whitmer announced Thursday that the state’s request for emergency aid had been approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the exact form that aid would take would be revised as damage assessments become available.
It could be days before the full scope of damage can be assessed, officials said. At present, mo flood-related deaths or injuries have been reported.
“The federal emergency declaration is a good start because it will help us take protective measures to protect lives and property from further damage,” Whitmer said. “These devastating floods have forced thousands of people from their homes and caused a tremendous amount of damage to our infrastructure. I’m hopeful that the federal government will soon approve the full funding request to help Michigan families rebuild after this natural disaster.”
But the situation is still developing. Floodwaters continue to threaten downstream communities, and the environmental impact of the flood could be a disaster all its own.
Midland is the headquarters for Dow Chemical, a company which operated a plant that seeped dangerous dioxins into rivers and groundwater. Dow has been working for years to mitigate that damage and restore the natural resources of central Michigan, but the flood may have washed away some of that progress.
Dow is working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to monitor the Tittabawassee River cleanup sites, reports Bloomberg. Regulators and company officials said Thursday it was too early to tell whether the swollen river had damaged spots that had been repaired or swept pollutants farther downstream.
While the cleanup sites held relatively well against a flood in 2017, the current flood is on an entirely different scale, said Allen Burton, a professor of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan.
“There’s no reason to expect that everything would remain in the same place after a massive flood like this,” Burton said. “No scientist out there would predict that will happen.”
The Tittabawassee River eventually flows into Lake Huron by way of Saginaw Bay. Any dioxin contamination threatened by the flood could have enormous downstream impacts.
“You can think you’ve contained toxic chemicals to a limited area, but a flood can scour that up and move it,” said Erik Olson, a toxic chemicals specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We saw that with [Hurricane] Katrina. What happened there is exactly what we’re worrying about happening in Midland.”
Dioxins are byproducts of some of the hundreds of chemicals manufactured over the years at the Dow plant. After a lengthy clash with regulators, Dow began cleanup of the rivers and sediments contaminated with the toxic substance in 2007. The EPA notes dioxins can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and can interfere with hormones.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.