Green or Greenwashing?

Dow Chemical’s $10 Million Plan to “Value Nature”
At the end of January, Dow Chemical Co., one of the largest chemical manufacturers in the world, and The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental group, announced a $10 million partnership aimed at improving the 114-year-old company’s environmental impact.

Both say they plan not just to create a Dow that “values nature” but to establish a model that other corporations could use to “green” themselves as well.

That news, however, was undercut by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which had it’s own announcement: The agency, prompted by public demand, extended the comment period for the cleanup plan for the Superfund site around Dow’s Midland, Michigan, headquarters.

From the 1930s to the 1970s, Dow dumped factory waste into the Tittabawassee River. That and other former company practices have left more than 50 miles of river and riverfront land contaminated with high levels of dioxin and furan—the toxic byproducts of chlorine production.

When the EPA announced a consent decree with Dow four years ago, federal regulators said the 1.6 million parts per trillion of dioxins downstream of the Midland plant was probably the highest ever found in the vicinity. Dioxins are carcinogens that build up in the environment and migrate into the food chain. The area targeted for cleanup extends all the way downstream to the Saginaw River and Lake Huron.

Is it just me or does anyone else think it’s little incongruous for Dow to be vowing to value nature when, critics say, the company has been dragging its feet on the Midland cleanup for years? Dow has reportedly even gone so far as to lobby both state and Obama administration officials to keep the site off the Superfund’s National Priority List.

Indeed, when put in the context of the company’s annual lobbying expenses, the Nature Conservancy deal doesn’t look like much: Dow spends much more on lobbying politicians in Washington—as much $13.3 million in 2009 and 2010 alone.

And The Midland imbroglio is just the latest in the company’s long and checkered environmental record. The EPA has named Dow as at least partially responsible for nearly 100 Superfund sites around the country. Dow has also paid millions of dollars in fines for, among other things, continuing to sell a pesticide and market it as “safe” after receiving hundreds of reports that its product was poisoning people.

Those previous run-ins with the EPA are enough to make a person doubt the sincerity of Dow chairman and chief executive Andrew Liveris, who told reporters that partnering with The Nature Conservancy would help his company “innovate new approaches to critical world challenges while demonstrating that environmental conservation is not just good for nature—it is good for business.”