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Dow Chemical Buys Silence in Michigan

by BRIAN McKENNA

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Three “Justice for Bhopal” terrorists were shot dead at a Dow Chemical facility in Piscataway, New Jersey on December 14, 2003. Bhopal activists – seeking redress for Dow’s failure to compensate victims of the worst industrial accident of all time – stormed the Dow facility, took eight Dow workers hostage killing one. Later a SWAT team took out the three terrorists.

For the record, it was Piscataway police dressed as the Bhopal “terrorists” in a mock drill. The slur had no basis in fact. But it gives a portal into the chemical giant’s consciousness where democratic inquiry is linked to terrorism.

On December 3rd 1984, just after midnight, 40 tons of poisonous substances leaked from Union Carbide’s (now Dow’s) pesticide plant in Bhopal, central India. A huge yellow cloud exposed a half million people to the gases, which hung over the city for hours. It remains the worst industrial accident of all time, with an estimated 7,000 deaths and 190,000 injuries the first few days and over 15,000 claims of deaths to date.
Guns and Guards

Dow has not learned its lesson. It is successfully fighting U.S. Homeland Security initiatives that would require them to use safer chemicals and processes where available, to better protect the 8 million residents surrounding their plants across the country. But they are reluctant to consider risk reduction alternatives beyond guns and guards. And guns and guards are having a field day.

Midland, Michigan is Dow’s international headquarters. In Spring 2003, filmmaker Steve Meador was taking digital video footage of the Dow chemical facility there while sitting in the back of his pick-up truck as his girlfriend drove on a public road. They were soon pulled over and detained by Midland police, Dow security, and a deputy from the Midland County sheriff’s office. “It was pretty scary until they figured out we weren’t terrorists casing the place.” Meador was making a documentary on dioxin pollution in Midland and downstream. Police took his picture and let him go.

“Dow security said that if we had been pulled over on their property that they could have confiscated the video,” said Meador.

Meador made his 90-minute documentary “The Long Shadow” – a critical investigation of Dow’s dioxin dealings with Michigan state government. The film was part of Maeder’s Master’s Project at Michigan State University’s Center for Environmental Journalism. It shows how Dow and state agencies collaborated to weaken regulatory enforcement, delayed public notification of possible health hazards associated with dioxin, and dragged their feet with an investigation.
Secret Deals

In 2001 the Engler administration learned that dioxin levels in the Tittabwassee River floodplain, downstream from Midland’s Dow Chemical were found at over 7,000 parts per trillion near parks and residential areas (80 times Michigan’s cleanup standards). But they didn’t bother to tell anyone. Finally the Lone Tree Council and the Michigan Environmental Council filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the data, alerted by conscientious DEQ insiders. In January 2002 the FOIA revealed that MDEQ Director Russ Harding had blocked further soil testing and was suppressing a state health assessment that called for aggressive state action. Later the Engler administration secretly tried to work out a “sweetheart deal” with Dow to raise the clean-up level of dioxin to 831 parts per trillion, thus circumventing clean-up of the dioxin in most areas. A judge later threw this out.

“I never even knew what dioxin was,” said Kathy Henry, one of the floodplain residents interviewed in the film. “My first reaction to hearing the news was fear, then denial. I didn’t want to know.” The MDEQ recommends that Henry remove her clothing the moment she enters the house after mowing her lawn. She looks out at her property as a wasteland.

All the above and more is detailed in the film, along with an interview with Harding.

The story continues to devolve. A few months ago, in November 2004 the state of Michigan issued a game consumption advisory for the Tittabawassee -river floodplain because of Dow’s dioxin. Turkeys and deer are now considered potentially toxic. This was only the second time in Michigan history that such a warning was made. Still, the crisis is vastly underreported in Michigan media.

“Unfortunately, The Long Shadow was never shown on Michigan PBS,” said Meador. Meador sent a rough cut to four stations – WCMU (Mt. Pleasant), WFUM at the University of Michigan (Flint), WTVS (Detroit), and WKAR at Michigan State University (East Lansing) in December 2003. “All of these stations had broadcast a previous documentary of mine entitled ‘A May to Remember’ about the Bath School bombing of 1927, Strangely, all of the stations were completely unresponsive to ‘The Long Shadow’ (i.e., phone calls and e-mails not returned).”

Meador says the film’s merits have been recognized by environmental reporters from the Bay City Times (Jeff Kart) and Detroit Free Press (Hugh McDiarmid). “The affected residents in the floodplain also had very nice things to say about it,” he added. “I’m not sure why the PBS stations didn’t bite. A number of people have suggested that the stations shied away because they are underwritten by Dow, and I think that is a possibility.”
Private TV

Dow is big funder to universities which house three of these public television stations. WCMU is at Central Michigan University, 30 miles from Midland. In 1978 DOW’s President withdrew money from CMU after Jane Fonda spoke there on economic democracy. “[It] will not be resumed until we are convinced our dollars are not expended in supporting those who would destroy us.'” CMU got the message. It’s new “Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow College of Health Professions” touts Dow even though DOW only gave $5 million, MI taxpayers gave $37.5 million.

The University of Michigan (home of WFUM) has a similar tale. During WW2 top secret work on a shell fuse that later developed into a “smart bomb” was aided by University of Michigan physicists, working in an old gravel pit outside of Ann Arbor. Later, DOW CEO Leland Doan served on the UM Board of Regents from 1952 to 1959, running as a Republican. In recent years Dow and its offshoots have contributed more than $10 million in direct contributions to the University of Michigan.

Dow has sunk millions into Michigan State University (home of WKAR). For example it gave $5 million to build the Dow Institute for Materials Research, a 46,000-square-foot addition to the east wing of MSU’s Engineering Building, in 1996. In the spring of 2002 Dow co-sponsored a seminar series at MSU’s Detroit College of Law, called, “Creating Sustainable Cities in the 21st Century.” On March 19th the talk was titled, “Abandonment of the Cities.” Unlike the University of Michigan, which has an active “Justice for Bhopal” student group, at MSU there was no such chapter, and so no one was on hand to ask whether Dow had abandoned the city of Bhopal.

So it’s not just guns and guards but the cash greenery that helps Dow to mold public perception.
Two Films, Two Terrorisms

In point of contrast, Michigan PBS stations were enthusiastic with Maeder’s other film, “A May to Remember,” which detailed the worst act of mass murder in American history prior to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Andrew Kehoe sought revenge after his farm was foreclosed upon, due in part to the taxes required to build the new Bath school. So he blew it up, killing 45 people, mostly schoolchildren.

When the focus is on a single demented terrorist the public airwaves are available, but when the gaze turns to a transnational guilty of poisoning vast swaths of mid-Michigan with dioxin — what the EPA calls, “the worst known to man,” ­ that’s a different story, especially when the public airwaves are partly underwritten by the transnational.

In fact, Maeder could have gone much further with his critique of Dow. There are stories recounting conflict over asbestos, breast implants, vinyl chloride contamination in Louisiana, labor decertification campaigns in Texas, union fights in Midland, and Bhopal.

Especially Bhopal. Given the death counts, the prolonged agony, and the persistent callous treatment of its victims, the Union Carbide/Dow Chemical disaster is worse than the September 11th tragedy. When cast this way I recall Nietzsche’s observation that, “Insanity in individuals is rare, in nations, epochs and eras it is the rule.”
Opium Wars

“Growth [is] the opiate we’re all hooked on. . .” said Frank Popoff, former CEO of DOW Chemical in Growth Company, DOW Chemical’s First Century. The 1997 book was written by E. N. Brandt, a 40 year public relations man at Dow who now has a $1.3 million chair named after him at Michigan State University. Universities are also interested in growth, it seems. Is DOW a drug abuser? Obsession with “growth” does help explain its behavior. Yet as Alcoholics Anonymous followers know, breaking the denial is the first step in overcoming an addiction.

Indeed, Dow seems to view anyone who challenges its growth manifesto as a terrorist. Keith McKennon, DOW research director from 1985-1990 told a writer that “During that period Dow transmogrified from the company that sets up antiaircraft guns to shoot down EPA flyover planes to the company that exists today.” McKennon doesn’t say if he’s kidding or not about the guns.

But Dow is surely not kidding with its ability to buy silence [i.e. the company that exists today]. Dow even dabbles in public health and journalism. In 1999 Hillsdale College received $500,000 for the Herbert H. Dow II Program in American Journalism. It is “devoted to the restoration of ethical, high-minded journalism standards and to the reformation of our cultural, political, and social practices.” That year the Dow Program sponsored Richard Lowry, Editor-in- Chief of the National Review, as a guest speaker. In his speech, titled “The High Priests of Journalism Truth, Morality, and the Media,” Lowry criticized American journalism for “reinforc[ing] the radical side in America’s culture wars.”

Not likely to be recruited to speak is Linda Hunt who informs us that in her excellent 1991 book, “Secret Agenda,” that in 1951 Dow hired Otto Ambros, the Nazi war criminal convicted at Nuremberg for slavery and mass murder in the killing of thousands of Jews with nerve gas.

Dow’s close relationships with defacto state terrorists is also less likely to see curricula time at Hillsdale. In 1973 Dow was first company to receive a phone call from Pinochet’s military in 1973, according to Brandt, soon after his forces assassinated democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende, toppling his government, asking Dow to come back, which Dow “readily accepted” (a Dow official saluting the economic “miracle” of Pinochet).

One wonders how Hillsdale or PBS for that matter would explore the 1941 charge by the U.S. Justice Department that Dow conspired with the Nazi’s I.F. Farben to hold down magnesium production in the United States in the prewar era (Dow later pleaded nolo contendere).

Which gets us back to dioxin. According to Tittabawassee River Watch www.trwnews.net when Governoral candidate Jennifer Granholm visited the area during her campaign she promised an open, transparent process and a timely response to public health issues. But once in office Granholm went back on her word and engaged in closed door negotiations with Dow, greatly disappointing the Michigan environmental community and many residents living along the 53 mile stretch of the contaminated Tittabawassee and Saginaw Rivers.

Granholm is currently under attack by environmentalists for permitting Nestle take water from Lake Michigan without a fight.

Privatization is the name of the neoliberal game. Maeder cannot get his film shown on WKAR even though the WKAR offices are just downstairs from the environmental journalism offices in the MSU Communication Arts Building.

Citizen groups from Mid-Michigan to Bhopal India are linked in their battles to defend their homelands against the terror of Dow. But Michigan media and universities are quiescent, fearful of offending the behemoth.

BRIAN McKENNA can be reached at: MCKENNA193@aol.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brian McKenna is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and can be reached at mckenna193@aol.com

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