The Slatest

The Weird American Story of Why My Hometown Is Underwater

And why Midland could be in for (more) toxic problems.

An aerial shot depicts brown river water that has flooded up to the edge of a small-town downtown, submerging buildings and trees.
Downtown Midland, Michigan, on Wednesday. The author had dinner before prom in 1999 at the building with the green roof to the lower left. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

After heavy rain, floodwaters breached two dams along the Tittabawassee River north of Midland, Michigan, on Tuesday night. The river is believed to have crested on Wednesday at a level a foot higher than it did in 1986, when many residents were forced out of their homes during what was previously the worst flood on record. This is concerning not just because of the damage being caused in a flat, low-lying area, and not just because it will require evacuees to congregate in group shelters in the midst of a pandemic, but because it creates the potential for a chemical catastrophe.

Midland (population 41,800) is a superficially “normal” small-town place, but the backstory to its current precarious situation takes some odd turns, and as someone who was a Midland resident from 1984 (when I was 2) until 2001 (when my parents moved to the more enticingly urbane metropolis of Fort Wayne, Indiana) I will be pleased to explain everything to you.

Tuesday’s issues, it turns out, can be traced back to a man named Frank Isaac Wixom, a local Gilded Age minibaron who got his start in the 1880s by operating a minstrel show for lumberjacks. That’s according to a two-part biography of him that was printed in the Midland Daily News in 2019, at least; apparently, Wixom used the proceeds from a wholesale produce business to buy circus wagons and hire “African American singers” for a show called “the Augusta Mimes Minstrels,” which toured the area entertaining workers in the then-thriving forestry industry. When all the available lumber had been harvested, something that happened with a Lorax-like suddenness, Wixom is said to have started an oil business in Wyoming, sold his concern to the company that would become Sinclair Oil, returned to Michigan, and, after a long period of frustration, eventually talked a wealthy Detroit family into financing his dream project of building electricity-producing dams on the Tittabawassee River. (Dream big!) Those dams created Wixom and Sanford lakes, which have in turn created decades of benefit for area residents who need somewhere to let their kids swim around and do whatever while the adults drink Busch Light on a boat that isn’t moving.

Wixom’s company, Wolverine Power, would eventually be sold in 2004 to a company that renamed itself Boyce Hydro Power LLC in 2007. Boyce Hydro is owned by a man named Lee Mueller, who has become a controversial character: In 2011, he made news for draining 4 feet out of Sanford Lake to make dam repairs, creating a logistical and aesthetic headache for the people who lived on its shore, then insisting that those residents, and not his company, should pay to complete the repairs. In 2018, Boyce Hydro was forbidden from producing power by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on the grounds that it had “knowingly and willfully refused to comply with major aspects of its license.” The commission specifically said that its “primary concern” was Boyce’s 14-years-and-running failure to address “inadequate spillway capacity” at the dams, which in layman’s terms meant that they were in danger of overflowing in the event of a major flood. A 2018 FERC document says that while the company claimed it could not make necessary improvements because of “financial hardship,” it “refused to provide basic information regarding its financial resources” on the grounds that such information was “private and confidential.” Wrote FERC, as sarcastically as a regulatory agency can: “The Commission will not rely on factual representations regarding Boyce Hydro’s financial status when it later claims evidence regarding those representations is not germane to the matter at hand.”

A plan to transfer ownership of the dams to a semi-governmental “delegated authority” was agreed to early this year but wasn’t supposed to be completed until 2022. And as you can see above, the major flood already happened. (On the subject of financial hardship, Federal Election Commission records show that a Lee Mueller of Boyce Hydro listed a Las Vegas address when he made a $1,000 donation in 2019 to a Nevada congressional candidate named Jim Marchant. A Nexis search of public records indicates that the Lee W. Mueller affiliated with Boyce Hydro owns property in Las Vegas and has had past addresses in Palm Beach, Laguna Beach, and Manhattan. For what it’s worth, Mueller appears to be the son of a socialite named Virginia Boyce Lind—my emphasis—and the grandson of the newspaper magnate who founded the Boy Scouts. He is licensed as an architect in California, but I have no idea why he got into the dam business in mid-Michigan, and a Thursday call to a phone number publicly listed for Boyce Hydro in Sanford was not answered.)

The reason this situation could get even more grim, meanwhile, is because while Frank Wixom was leveraging a racist lumberjack circus into the tiny hydroelectric empire that Lee Mueller would take over, another aspiring industrial titan named Herbert Henry Dow was working in the same area to develop a new, more efficient way to extract the element bromine from brine. Brine is salty water that, in Michigan, was plentiful underground, and bromine was/is used in photography, so Dow’s was a lucrative advancement. His company branched into the production of other elements and compounds, and when World War I began, it was well prepared to step into a void created by the sudden, blockade-related downfall of the previously dominant German chemical industry.

The products that Dow Chemical made included components of incendiary flares, explosives, and mustard gas, and the wartime U.S. government became a major client. This set the precedent for Dow’s infamous production of key ingredients in napalm and Agent Orange for the armed services during Vietnam. Its role in this process helped kill Vietnamese people in an especially needless way, sickened American troops, and triggered protests at college career days, but it didn’t prevent the company from continuing to grow and profit, to the point that in 1999 it was able to acquire Union Carbide, the company responsible for India’s Bhopal disaster. According to documents published by WikiLeaks, Dow subsequently hired a private company to provide “intelligence” about activists who believe it should do more to compensate Bhopal victims; after Donald Trump was elected, the company donated $1 million to his inaugural fund. In sum, it’s a checkered history even before you get into the Dow-related breast implant bankruptcy.

Dow’s headquarters and main manufacturing facility are still in Midland. This loyalty to the community, though, may have the side effect of poisoning the community—according to a study cited by the National Resources Defense Council, the plant is responsible for a so-called cancer cluster thought to have been caused by compounds called dioxins, which are byproducts of manufacturing pesticides and herbicides. (Agent Orange is a herbicide.) Dow has criticized the methodology of the study that the NRDC cites but acknowledged in other contexts that dioxins are dangerous and that the company bears some responsibility for cleaning them up and limiting their further release. In 1983, litigation uncovered a bombshell 1965 memo in which one of the company’s own employees wrote that dioxins could be “exceptionally toxic” to humans.

To bring it all back together, Dow’s Midland operation is located on the currently submerged banks of the Tittabawassee River. The river and its banks are (or at least used to be) the site of frequent recreational fishing, but Dow also used them for decades to discard liquid and solid waste products such as the “bratwurst-sized electrodes” that were found during nearby construction work in 2008. The company, for its part, said Wednesday that it had shut down operations at the plant and that although floodwaters are commingling “with an on-site pond used for storm water and brine system/groundwater remediation,” there have been “no reported product releases.” This is not the most reassuring language given that remediation is the process of removing contaminants—and that some of the same floodwaters at issue, as documented by pictures that have been forwarded to me, are currently commingling to a depth of several feet with the contents of many residents’ basements.

So, bad things are feared. Still, given the difficulty of drawing direct connections between pollutants and illnesses, and the importance of the company to Midland (which really goes beyond importance into omnipresent inseparability—I’m still a member of the Dow Chemical Credit Union, for example) the most likely outcome is that the waters recede, the plant gets cleaned up, and everyone goes on living, and possibly getting sick eventually, and maybe blaming Dow for that sickness in conspiratorial conversations, but not having the means or necessarily even the inclination to do anything about it, because in Midland, Dow isn’t part of life—Dow is life, and all lives end.

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