Dioxin bill debate focuses on cost, cancer danger


ANNAPOLIS -- A bill to raise Maryland's standards for the emission of dioxin, a toxic chemical, would cost more than $100 million to meet, according to Westvaco Corp., one of Western Maryland's largest employers and practically the only company affected by the bill.

But the higher standard would lower Marylanders' risk of developing cancer to one case per 1 million people, down from one case per 100,000 people, according to environmentalists.

The bill, heard by the House Environmental Matters Committee, would raise the allowed level of dioxin in Maryland rivers from 1.2 parts per quadrillion to the 0.013 parts per quadrillion standard recommended by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

"I don't think the citizens of the state of Maryland would consider one in 100,000 cases of cancer acceptable," said Delegate Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Carroll, who sponsored House Bill 16.

"The health and welfare of our citizens, not economics . . . should be the overriding factor," he said.

Attention in Maryland became focused on dioxin, a byproduct of the bleaching of wood pulp, in 1990, when the EPA discovered high levels of the chemical in fish caught in the upper Potomac River below the Westvaco plant in Garrett County. The state issued a health advisory, which is still in effect, about eating fish caught in the river.

Diane Cameron, an environmental engineer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that only three other states have dioxin standards "as lax as we have in Maryland."

She said the EPA recommendation is based on more recent scientific findings than the assumptions Maryland used to develop its standard. Those federal findings, she said, show that dioxin accumulates in fish at a rate 10 times greater than the rate Maryland assumed. And, Ms. Cameron said, the cancer risk the EPA used is nine times higher than that of Maryland's Department of the Environment.

Westvaco executives, out in force for the hearing, said the plant in Luke already has reduced its dioxin emissions by 98 percent in the last two years, spending $15 million on capital equipment to do it.

"If we had to to try to meet this EPA criterion," said plant manager Roger Dandridge, "we would have to go to a new bleaching system whose cost would be in excess of $100 million, and there's no guarantee that we would meet the standard."

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