Two dams bursting in Michigan put our toxic waste problem in the spotlight

If you’re wondering why U.S. PIRG has launched its campaign to win back the Polluter Pays Tax for toxic waste cleanups, consider what nearly occurred in Midland, Michigan, when historic flooding met with a chemical plant, a toxic Superfund site and a town of 41,000.

Toxic threats

Henry Hintermeister

If you’re wondering why U.S. PIRG has launched its campaign to win back the Polluter Pays Tax for toxic waste cleanups, consider what nearly occurred in Midland, Michigan, when historic flooding met with a chemical plant, a toxic Superfund site and a town of 41,000.

Two dams burst near Midland

At first, the breach was just a trickle of water. Then the earth embankment of the Edenville Dam sloughed off like the wall of a sand castle at high tide. The rain-swollen water of the Tittabawassee burst through the debris, headed toward a Dow chemical plant, an in-progress hazardous waste cleanup and the town of Midland.

Many may remember when heavy rains in central Michigan caused two ruptures in the Edenville and Sanford Dams in May 2020. The flooding along the Tittabawassee River was disastrous, sweeping away homes and forcing the evacuation of 10,000 people.

But as the flooding persisted, then-Environment Michigan State Director Nathan Murphy warned the public on Michigan Radio that the natural disaster could be compounded by another, man-made, risk — toxic chemicals.

An accident waiting to happen

For decades, a Dow chemical complex located on the Tittabawassee had released chemicals into the river, including dioxins, which can damage the immune system and lead to reproductive issues and cancer.

In fact, the National Environmental Law Center sued Dow for illegal pollution in 1995 on behalf of PIRGIM and local residents, winning a $1 million penalty and Dow’s obligation to commit an estimated $30 million to upgrade its treatment system and remove dioxin-contaminated wastes. In 2007, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) entered into an agreement with Dow to clean up the dioxin contamination downriver under the Superfund program. Dow is paying to clean up the contamination and agreed to pay another $77 million in 2019 for restoration projects in the area.

Both Dow’s facility and the Superfund site were put at risk when the May flooding sent waters into some of the plant’s retaining ponds and a powerful current downriver, threatening to send dioxin-laden sediments further downstream or up over the Tittabawasee’s banks, where signs already warn locals not to touch the soil or eat fish from that part of the river.

Fortunately, Dow confirmed that there were no known chemical releases from its plant and reported in a statement “the material from the brine pond does not create any risk to residents or the environment.”

Initial sampling of riverbed and floodplain sediment conducted by Dow under the oversight of the EPA and Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy found that the flooding did not increase contamination to a level meriting additional cleanup; and site inspections did not find any significant damage to Dow’s remediation efforts.

More testing is scheduled, but suffice to say that a bad situation could have been made much worse if not for luck.

Photo: For decades, a Dow chemical complex along the Tittabawassee (pictured above in a 1940 illustration) polluted the river with chemicals. Credit: Don…the UpNorth Memories…Guy via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

A wide-ranging chemical problem

There are numerous sites across the United States that store or are contaminated by toxic chemicals, are near or in our water systems, and are at risk of flooding. Aptly named “accidents waiting to happen,” the risks these sites pose to human health are likely to increase as climate change threatens their stability.

About 1,400 toxic chemical sites around the United States are located in high-risk flood zones. Another 1,100 are in moderate-risk zones. As climate change increases the frequency of flooding and causes sea levels to rise, these sites are increasingly in danger of spilling and putting those nearby in harm’s way.

One in six Americans lives within three miles of a toxic waste site so hazardous that it has been approved or proposed for cleanup under “Superfund,” a federal program established in 1980 to hold polluters responsible for toxic waste cleanups, or to conduct cleanups itself if the polluting entity could not be found or was unable to cover the cost. Of declared Superfund sites not owned by the federal government, at least 60 percent are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

Polluter Pays: The need for federal funding

The Public Interest Network has long advocated for addressing our nation’s toxic waste problem. As our window to preempt climate-related spills closes, it’s become more urgent than ever that we act decisively.

But in the last two decades, the number of Superfund cleanups completed has dropped precipitously. From 1991 to 2000, the yearly average for completed cleanups rested at 71 completions annually. From 2011 to 2020, that number fell to an average of 12.

The cause for the decline is not that there are simply fewer sites to clean up. Of the 1,700 Superfund sites that have been added to the EPA’s National Priorities List since 1980, less than a quarter have been deleted, the final step in confirming a cleanup’s completion.

One major reason our toxic waste sites aren’t getting cleaned up is a dearth of federal funding. In 1995, Congress failed to renew the Polluter Pays Tax, a tax levied on the petroleum and chemical industries which originally funded Superfund cleanups. Since then, the money for Superfund has come primarily from taxpayers, spreading the program thin, finds “Superfund Underfunded,” a report recently compiled by U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Today, Superfund allots its limited resources across more than 1,300 toxic waste sites.

As we consider the increased risk of toxic waste sites spreading contamination to nearby communities due to sea-level rise, flooding and climate-induced disasters, we must expedite the process of cleaning them up. Congress must ensure that the federal government has the resources to complete these cleanups and that taxpayers don’t carry the financial burden.

As we launch our Polluter Pays campaign, U.S. PIRG is calling on Congress to reinstate the Polluter Pays Tax and on the EPA to account for the impacts of climate change as it prioritizes sites for cleanup.

In the long term, we need to transition away from industrial operations that use or create large volumes of toxic waste to the greatest extent possible. When we are able to safely produce the things we need, and to give up the things that we can’t make safely, we will have less hazardous material to deal with in the first place.

But on the way, we need to clean up the toxic waste already threatening our communities and preempt the accidents waiting to happen around the country by cleaning up these sites. To make sure this happens, Congress must take action to ensure the federal Superfund program is fully funded — and by the industries that created the hazards in the first place.

Learn more about U.S. PIRG’s Make Polluters Pay campaign. 

Photo: markzvo via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain



At least 53 million Americans live within three miles of a proposed or designated Superfund site, where hazardous waste has been dumped, spilled or left out. And the federal Superfund program that's working on cleaning these sites is funded by taxpayer dollars — so taxpayers are paying to clean up polluters' messes. Polluters should pay for toxic waste cleanup. Tell your U.S. representative: Reinstate a Polluter Pays Tax in the Superfund toxic waste program.

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Henry Hintermeister