Monday, January 28, 2008

Davos irony -- heavy as dioxin-laden sediment in the Saginaw River

Thousands of Michigan citizens are suing Dow Chemical over dioxin contamination of the Tittabawassee flood plain in a class-action lawsuit. But Friday in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Dow Chemical for its programs and efforts to be part of "the water solution."

Laying out a scenario connecting climate change with increased water scarcity and subsequent political unrest, Ban dished out praise of Dow, Nestle and Coca-Cola alongside an appeal to corporate executives to help the U.N. bring poor people clean water.

But Dow already has plenty to do in Michigan to bring clean water to over 300,000 people -- cleanup of the Tittabawassee and Saginaw Rivers, which Dow polluted for decades and which affects people in Saginaw, Bay City and Midland. Add to that remediation of a mind-boggling 1.6 million parts per trillion of dioxin contamination found in the Saginaw River last summer, and one can hardly imagine global corporate citizen Dow generously spending elsewhere to be part of "the water solution."

Earlier this month, the EPA ceased negotiations with Dow over dioxin cleanup of the Tittabawassee River system. That name doesn't capture the scope or gravity of the situation. We're talking about a vast watershed that drains into Lake Huron, one of our beloved Great Lakes -- the world's largest freshwater resource. The EPA said Dow's cleanup proposal didn't do enough to protect human health. But even more is at stake.

If U.N. Secretary-General Ban is right that climate change will increase water scarcity, then our Great Lakes will become a strategic global resource. Already coveted by parched desert-southwest cities, with politicians calling for a "national water policy," the Great Lakes are the natural asset that most defines our region.

Industries will come and go, produce and pollute, lay off and outsource. Will the water they leave behind be fit for human consumption in the decades ahead? Will the world's largest freshwater system be able to sustain human communities if it is filthy -- and -- shrinking due to climate change?

For now, lawsuits are cheaper than cleanup. So citizens affected by pollution will have to fight in court for their health, the health of the environment and their right to clean water.

Meanwhile, global corporate citizens can gather in remote idyllic retreats to brainstorm, think big thoughts and pat each other on the back for a job well done.