Well, I ain't been back some 25 years But the company magazine Says the air blows fresh in Midland-mish, And the Tittabawassee's clean. "Tittabawassee Jane"

By Jay Stielstra

In the book of rivers, the Tittabawassee will never count for much, but it flows through this tranquil town as an enduring symbol of a nation at war with itself over chemicals and public health.

The battle lines are as clearly drawn here on the banks of the unassuming Tittabawassee as they are anywhere. The worrisome headlines about disease and toxic chemicals, about science run amok and corporate influence on the American political process come into focus here in Midland.

Midland is the home of Dow Chemical Co., one of the biggest, best-known, combatively aggressive and self-certain chemical firms in the world. Just as Dow's great factories and laboratories produce convenience plastics and exotic chemicals that make America comfortable, they produce controversy and unease.

In the past it was Dow's role as a purveyor of munitions and jungle defoliants for the Vietnam war that brought controversy. Today, it involves Midland's environment and the company's political activism.

The Tittabawassee, after it flows past Dow's huge flagship factory, is poisoned with enough dioxin to make its fish inedible, according to state health officials. Medical data show that soft-tissue sarcoma, a rare cancer, appears here at rates higher than are found nationally. Rates of birth defects, for unexplained reasons, have exceeded state and national levels. There is dispute over the quality of Midland's air and water. Toxic waste dumps leak and the state ordered Dow to shut down a major burial site earlier this month.

These have become issues of contention in Michigan and the nation, but much of it is not new to this affluently serene city of 36,000 northeast of Detroit. Napalm bombs made Dow a target of fierce Vietnam war protests. Its potent Agent Orange herbicide, also used in Vietnam, has embroiled Dow and other chemical firms in multimillion-dollar damage suits by veterans.

For all that might lurk in the air, the soil and the water of Midland County, this town is a paradoxically inviting place. More Ph.D's per square acre than most places. Its own symphony and a gleaming center for the arts. Solid schools and an imposing library. Writers' workshops, a nature center, endless tennis courts and ballfields. Money. Happy workers.

Midland also is the quintessential company town, dominated by a Dow that brought wealth, philanthropy and good times. Scientists do not raise their voices outside the plant gates. The city council and school board are dominated by Dow employes. The few citizens who question Dow policies feel isolated and threatened.

"This is a good midwestern community," said John A. Palen, editor of the Midland Daily News. "It is unusually educated, with a lot of Ph.D's, lawyers and brain surgeons. But it is not like a university community with different disciplines. This is not a hotbed of humanistic studies. The attitude here is that science and technology constitute a kind of truth and we have it."

Midland's ease and affluence stem directly from the presence of Dow, located here by Herbert Dow in the late 1890s and kept here by his successors as they built his dream into a hard-charging, global conglomerate of inestimable power and influence with 57,000 employes (7,000 here) and $10.6 billion in sales in 1982. Dow was third in the world in profits, sixth largest in sales in 1981. It has operations in 29 countries, with 112 plants.

Company executives today have added another dimension to the intellectual certainty that propelled old "Crazy Dow," as the founder was known around here. They have made federal environmental regulation the target of a virtual holy war that seeks to impose its theology of bottom-line on the American political process. Dow political action committees contribute more to campaigns than any other chemical firm: $312,000 to candidates in the 1982 congressional elections, $304,000 to House, Senate and presidential candidates in 1980. Cause and effect may be debatable, but doors have swung open for Dow in Washington.

President Paul F. Oreffice, who once likened U.S. economic and regulatory policies to those of a banana republic, helped the Reagan White House choose an Environmental Protection Agency chief. Dow lobbyists find eager ears for their regulatory ideas at the EPA. One of its Washington operatives regularly wined and dined Rita M. Lavelle, EPA's deposed toxic-waste cleanup overseer.

Before he resigned under pressure, EPA deputy administrator John W. Hernandez Jr. allowed Dow to censor critical portions from an EPA study of the potency of Dow-produced dioxin. Another Dow man was allowed to derail an international system for testing new chemicals. Both issues are under congressional investigation.

To the utter mystification of its top executives, the company now finds itself depicted as a pariah for these and other excursions into the world of regulation and governance.

The company has just hired Hill & Knowlton Inc., the world's biggest public relations firm, to help it deal with a deteriorating image. Robert W. Lundeen, Dow's board chairman and a company man for 37 years, put it this way in a recent interview:

"We're not unaware of the public perceptions . . . and we know Dow doesn't get too many hero badges . . . . We are regarded as 'prickly' . . . . But we are just not going to back off on being active, effective advocates in areas where we have a right to be."

Rep. Donald J. Albosta (D-Mich.), who was elected the area's congressman in 1978 without Dow's support, takes a dim view of his biggest corporate constituent's style. "I don't think they perceive that they are part of the problem," he said.

Dow executives warmed to Albosta after he was elected. He favored giving the company more time to meet an air pollution-control deadline, fearing jobs would be lost otherwise. But when he voted for the federal "Superfund," requiring industry to pay for toxic-waste dump cleanup, and voted against some of the Reagan budget-cutting proposals, Albosta was back out of favor.

As a result of recent discoveries of dioxin contamination here and elsewhere in the country, the EPA is planning a major scientific review of the issue. Dioxin, a byproduct of chemical production, is widely thought to be one of the most potent cancer-causing agents made by man. But little is known with certainty about its effect on human health.

Much of the EPA review work will be done here to determine if, as Dow maintains, all is salubrious, or if the firm's processes have created a massive public health threat. Dow President Oreffice and other company officials insist that dioxin is benign and has no harmful impact on human health. A Dow study, much debated and rejected by many scientists, asserts that dioxin is a product of combustion and is found wherever man uses fire.

But recently surfaced Dow internal documents suggest that company scientists have been concerned for years about the potential hazards of dioxin. One 1967 memo detailed the sensitivity of dioxin and outlined how the company disposed of thousands of gallons of dioxin-contaminated water in old wells.

Such revelations regularly make the front page of John Palen's Daily News, but the only words of challenge and protest come from a small group of environmentalists. Those who raise questions become outcasts. Others sign petitions expressing undying faith in the company.

And the air smelled just like keroseneAnd whatever else Dow pumped out.And the river was laced with lumps of wasteCalled the Tittabawassee trout.--"Tittabawassee Jane"

Colin Broddle, a stockbroker who has lived here 30 years, got up the petition drive and enlisted more than 2,000 signatories.

"There is no health threat here," Broddle said. "Dow has a fantastic record. But I'm biased. This is a wonderful place to live. What I read and hear confound me . . . . Dow is being much maligned. I have a lot of confidence and faith in them. They are my friends. I believe in them."

Mary Sinclair is one who didn't sign the petitions. She looks at today's dioxin controversy with the eye of a veteran of an earlier battle over a nuclear power plant, which is nearing completion just across the Tittabawassee from the Dow complex.

"Open discussion is not possible here," she said. "When I organized the anti-nuclear group in the late 1960s there was a bitter reaction. The hostility was really something. Why, the county commission voted to spend $20,000 to run ads against us."

"The same kind of thing is happening with dioxin," she continued. "This is all a reflection on the kind of town this is. The scientists at Dow are a valuable resource, but open discussion is not encouraged among them . . . . On dioxin, we need more information beyond just what Dow tells us. But there is this whole trust-Dow attitude. The same thing happened with the nuclear plant."

Dick Brzezinski, president of the United Steel Workers of America local that represents 2,600 Dow hourly workers, didn't sign the petition either. He wants to know more about the effect of Dow's operations on the environment.

"When there is an identifiable problem, Dow has a good record," he said. "They work hard to alleviate any deficiencies in the safety program Dow leads the industry in worker safety . . . . I haven't had a single phone call from a member since this dioxin scare hit. There's no panic in the plant. But I think we need a crash effort to see how dioxins affect human health."

Andrea K. Wilson, mother of two children, was another who didn't sign Broddle's petition. She and her husband, Jim, a school psychologist, have sold their house and decided to leave Midland because they are afraid. Their son has a tumor on a leg bone.

"Oh, yes," she said, "on the outside, this place is very appealing. The arts, the library, sports, culture. But the risk is too great. Health is at stake. My children are at a vulnerable age and I don't think we can take the risk with children."

Wilson is the chief public critic of Dow Chemical Co.

"We encounter a lot of hostility," she said. "A lot of it comes from local officials and business people. I am concerned that all the recent focus has been on dioxin. It is by no means the only environmental problem we have here."

Her friend and coworker, Diane Hebert, a mother of two and a Dow stockholder, talked about the isolation their protests have brought.

"There definitely is hostility directed toward us. We've been told to leave town. People call us misinformed. It's always been promoted here that chemists know best. My complaint is that they don't put out information and let us decide for ourselves what we will do and when we will do it to protect our families." And she worked in the Midland chemical plant And I waited for her shift to end.She made napalm or some kind of bomb,But I wasn't too political then.--"Tittabawassee Jane"

The dioxin poisoning story, while new on the nation's front pages and dramatized by the federal government's decision to buy the town of Times Beach, Mo., rather than try to clean up the contamination, is old hat here in Midland.

"When the dioxin train came rumbling through here," said John Palen, "nobody got too upset. They had heard it before."

What Midland had heard before was, basically, the Dow position that there was nothing to fear from dioxin. Dow officials continue to state that view publicly, but other information dribbling out in bits and pieces suggests otherwise. Among that information are internal Dow memos, years old, emphasizing serious potential problems with dioxin.

One such 1967 memo, obtained by Andrea Wilson, details Dow scientists' concerns about a plant building that was contaminated with dioxin from tricholorophenol (TCP). Detailed precautions were taken to protect workers who might be exposed in the cleanup. Dow then solved its problem, according to the memo, by burying the dioxin-contaminated equipment and by pouring some 10,000 gallons of dioxin-poisoned water into the underground well system.

A 1965 memo, reported recently in The New York Times, indicated that Dow scientists were telling other chemical firms they had determined that dioxin caused "severe" liver damage in rabbits, but Dow feared public reaction would explode and more government regulation would ensue if the data was disclosed.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has asked Dow for more information about the 1967 cleanup. But Wilson and Larry E. Fink, a DNR scientist and whistle blower in Lansing, say that these recent revelations only underscore the need for a full-scale scientific study of the Midland area's environment--not just a look at dioxin.

Some of the puzzling questions in Midland County:

* What caused a sharp surge in birth defects between 1970 and 1974? Dow, citing its own studies after the surge was noted, said it had no connection with dioxin and that the defect rates were based on incomplete data. But animal studies done elsewhere strongly suggest a direct link between the birth defects and dioxin.

* Why does Midland have one of the nation's highest death rates for white women suffering from a rare form of cancer: soft and connective tissue sarcoma? Dow, in a full-page ad in the Daily News last month, did not answer the question directly. But it said there was no cancer "epidemic" here and its own studies showed a lower-than-average cancer mortality rate among Dow workers.

* To what extent does Dow's burning of hazardous chemical and low-level radioactive waste at its complex contribute to air pollution and endangered health in the area? Dow maintains records of its activities, but there are no independent monitoring devices for routine surveillance.

* With the public warned against eating fish from the Tittabawassee as well as other Michigan rivers, and with this area ranked by EPA as one of the three dozen most-polluted water sites in the country, what contaminants are in Dow's effluent? The EPA is suing Dow over its refusal to let the agency investigate waste-water content inside the plant.

* How much is the soil and subsoil around Midland contaminated from chemical waste dumps and other disposal methods used by Dow? Wilson and Fink have raised questions about leakage of hazardous wastes from a half-dozen sites in this area. Dow's new toxic-waste dump, described as a "Cadillac" of landfills, was ordered closed by the state this month due to leaks.

Fink wonders about the questions, but he fears they are only a beginning.

"We may yet be at the bottom of the mountain," he said. "Around the state a great deal of interest has developed. All of this has raised people's consciousness . . . . But Dow is very intimidating to deal with. The average Joe Blow regulator is not used to going up against a company with that much power." But I don't want to tell you what to believe,Dow's been known to lie.Not that I care what they do to the air,But the Tittabawassee's mine.--"Tittabawassee Jane"

The flagpole in the parking lot of Dow headquarters leaves no doubt where this company stands. An enormous American flag undulates atop the pole. Four-square for country and progress, this company, seems to be the message.

Inside headquarters, there is an air of less certainty. Dow is under attack and its top officials are not quite sure how to calm things down.

Board Chairman Lundeen acknowledged that he is in a quandary. He said he has recognized the image problem for years, he knows the company is often seen as arrogant and freewheeling, but no one knows how to reverse it.

But part of the problem, he surmised, is that Dow people are taught to function in ways that may seem mysterious to the unanointed. In this system there is little room for self-doubt. So Dow hangs tough.

Larry Fink, a graduate chemist who has dealt with Dow agents in Lansing, described it this way: "It is a self-assurance that borders on arrogance. What you see down there is group-think. It says this is the best that it gets to be. But after 20 years in that mill, they come out with their heads chiseled to the same point."

Responded Lundeen: "Our intent is not to be that way. We have no intent to be arrogant, but we do have to stand on facts and reasonable conclusions and our problem is how do we communicate that."

Dow's view, he continued, is that government regulations are necessary, the environmental movement is not a bad thing and a clean environment is "reasonable." But the problem, he said, is that the pendulum of reason has swung so out of control that American industry and its productivity soon will suffocate unless the Dows of the world can help get things realigned.

"We have to be advocates," Lun-deen said. "And we have to be increasingly better advocates. I feel a responsibility very keenly. Dow has to stay alive economically. We have 60,000 employes, 140,000 shareholders. We're in 100 communities around the world . . . . If we overregulate our important industries, it is going to be very bad."

"Herbert Dow was very strong on principle," he said. "It was all-important. And his son, Willard, was very strong on that. Most of us here now knew Willard. Principle is almost gospel here. That got bred into all of us. It became very important."

That principle, for instance, is one reason Dow won't compromise with the EPA on demands to look at waste-water ingredients inside the plant.

"What leaves our property is public information. But we've drawn the line at the property line . . . . We are testing the issue with EPA but it creates a public perception that we have something to hide," Lundeen said.

At another point, he said the company is "iron-assed" on the issue of worker safety. "One thing we are sensitive about is the people who are in the company. This firestorm over Dow really bothers us. People say we don't give a damn. That gets people's blood pressure up around here."

So feelings run high inside Dow headquarters and the us-against-them atmosphere intensifies. All of it comes, Lundeen suggested, from a corporate stress on turning managers loose to do a job, come hell or high water.

"We got where we are because each of us was sent out to do jobs in relatively difficult situations where you had to stand for yourself," he said. "That develops character. It makes guys who tend to rely on their own resources and who are very confident in their ability to get the job done.

"We don't breed in our system people to whom compromise is easy. I happen to think that is a good way to run a company."