Tuesday, September 16, 2014


Or a (non) comedy of errors. And near as I can tell, it is now illegal to manufacture products meant to be eaten by someone or something in the same plant as products that aren't. Another one of those pesky regulations.

I hope this will be the first of several entries on what still stands as worst case of chemical contamination in Michigan and the surrounding states. The chemical plant is now closed. In a shining example of American socialism the parent corporation got its profits and the taxpayers got stuck with the nearly four hundred million dollars in clean up costs. And that didn’t start until late in 2012. It may still be going on since it includes not only the plant site but the nearby land fill where the chemical company dumped damn near anything, including DDT.

The beginning of this story would be almost funny, if the results hadn’t been so tragic. It begins at the Michigan Chemical Plant in Saint Louis. Michigan Chemical manufactured a range of chemicals including DDT and PBB (polybrominatedbiphenol). PBB was used as a fire retardant. The most common form came in orangish, sticky chunks that looked like toffee. However, the company had started marketing a crystallized version that came in a grayish white powder shipped in fifty pound heavy duty paper bags. The trade name was firemaster and the bags had a distinctive red, diagonal stripe on the front. At the time no one knew just how toxic PBB’s were. Turns out there is no such thing as a safe level of PBB’s in your body.

Michigan Chemical also marketed magnesium oxide as an additive to cattle feed. Mag oxide acts as an antacid. It was marketed under the trade name nutirmaster and was shipped in fifty pound bags with a distinctive blue stripe across the front. In theory firemaster and nutrimaster were shipped from different loading docks in different parts of the plant. Sometime in the late summer or early fall a series of human errors lead to the poisoning of nine out of ten citizens of Michigan and a massive cull of farm animals, especially dairy cattle.

It started innocently enough with a paper shortage. The company was unable to get the usual printed bags with the stripes that I suspect everyone was relying on to tell the two apart. Unprinted bags were stenciled with the names of the product and, I guess, everybody assumed that would be enough. Didn’t seem to occur to anyone to label firemaster as a chemical that wasn’t meant to be consumed by living things. Or to label nutrimaster as an additive to animal feed.

When the Michigan Farm Bureau placed an order for Mag Oxide for its manufacturing plant near Battle Creek, somebody screwed up. And several somebodies continued to screw up. Years later, at least one plant worker admitted that he could barely read. Maybe he made the first mistake, but no one else caught it.

At least a ton of firemaster was included in the shipment of Mag Oxide. Once the shipment reached the feed plant no one checked through the bags to make sure they were all what they were supposed to be. Every bag was supposed to be mag oxide so they were all stored with the rest of the additive. When it was time to add the magnesium oxide to a batch of feed whoever was tasked with bringing it in apparently just grabbed a bag or bags off the stack. And whoever was in charge of weighing it out at eight pounds per ton apparently didn’t double check either. Although at this point the stenciling may have been unreadable. Who knows?

I suspect that everyone was relying on those red and blue stripes/ I also suspect that no one at that feed plant even knew the PBB product that looked so much like the feed additive even existed. Still, you’d think that someone at either end of the chain would take the trouble to make sure that what was going on that truck was what had been ordered. Or that what was being received was what the company actually ordered.

As the author of The Poisoning of Michigan phrased it; once the bags of firemaster were mixed in with the nutrimaster what happened next was almost inevitable.


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