Maryland lets too much cancer-causing dioxin find its way into the state's rivers, environmental groups charged in a suit yesterday, and they say the fault lies with the federal government for allowing the state to get away with it.
That is the gist of the suit challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's approval last fall of a Maryland standard for dioxin that was 100 times less stringent than EPA's standard. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Virginia by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Maryland Conservation Council and three other environmental groups.
Because the EPA allowed Maryland to set a lax standard, the suit charges, residents and visitors who fish in the Potomac River in Western Maryland are at increased risk, because the Westvaco Corp. paper mill in Luke emits dioxin-contaminated wastewater into the river. Maryland's new standard, adopted Sept. 12, would allow the plant to continue its discharges at the same rate it always has, according to the suit.
Anglers were advised by the state last year to limit their intake of fish caught below the Westvaco plant because of high levels of dioxin found in the fish's skin and fatty tissue.
Dioxin is one of the most carcinogenic substances known to man, according to the EPA, and is also toxic in small concentrations to fish and other aquatic life. However, recent research has raised questions about that assessment. The Jan. 24 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, reported that a study of 5,172 workers at dioxin-contaminated plants showed only "slightly but significantly" higher levels of all forms of cancer.
Because of its chemical structure, even minute amounts of dioxin in river water tend to bind with fatty tissue in fish. Thus, fish caught in the river have 5,000 to 50,000 times more dioxin per gram than would be found in a similar amount of water.
The EPA says there is no safe exposure to dioxin. But it set an acceptable limit of just 0.013 parts per quadrillion parts of water, a level unmeasurably low that would be expected to produce only one extra cancer death per million deaths.
Yet last September, the state of Maryland approved a standard of 1.2 parts per quadrillion -- almost 100 times higher than the U.S. standard.
"Maryland's dioxin criteria fails to protect human health adequately against the cancer risk posed by dioxin," the suit charges.
Said Robert W. Adler, the lead attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, "We felt that the state of Maryland essentially adopted a number that was more in the interests of the paper industry than the public's or the environment's."
Maryland officials defended their standard yesterday.
"I can't imagine that the NRDC's suit against the EPA would prompt us to change our standard, because that would imply that we adopted it for reasons other than human health," said Larry Ward, the chief of the state's Toxic, Environmental Science and Health Administration.