Regulations recently proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency to significantly reduce chemical pollution from the nation's paper mills would cost $10 billion, close 30 plants and some others could still not meet all the limits.
This despite a three-year EPA re-assessment of the health effects of dioxin and related chemicals, a main target of its crackdown on paper mill discharges, that won't be completed until next year.
While the regulations could take two years to finalize, and EPA pledges to review new technology till then, the agency has acted prematurely.
The paper industry's own proposal to require use of chlorine dioxide instead of basic chlorine in paper-bleaching processes would virtually eliminate dioxin at the mills. It would still cost $4 billion, but would not threaten the loss of so many jobs. EPA says the alternative is unproven.
Yet a joint U.S.-Canada scientific panel on the Great Lakes concluded that chlorine dioxide is an effective solution to the industry's chlorinated organics problem. It's a reminder that environmental decisions cannot be made in a political vacuum.
Westvaco's paper mill in Luke, Md., says that it cannot meet all EPA limits, even if it spends $140 million to change equipment, processes and raw materials. It can reduce discharges of dioxin and the 11 other chemicals to satisfy EPA standards, but the agency's limit on total chlorinated organics in wastewater is impossible to attain for this producer of super-white, high quality papers.
The Allegany County plant spent $15 million to cut dioxin releases into the upper Potomac River to one-third of a gram in a year, a level so low it cannot be detected in the water. Westvaco would spend another $32 million to further reduce discharges under the paper industry's proposal, and could remain in operation.
If dioxin were the proven imminent deadly danger that some scientists claim it to be, the stringent measures demanded by EPA might be justified. But dioxin's suspected danger is in long-term accumulation in the body that may increase the chance of certain types of cancer. It's not all that certain.
The EPA should further examine the chlorine dioxide process alternative, while waiting on the conclusions of its own dioxin-hazard reassessment. There is time to modify the rules and weigh new evidence. The principal problem for EPA decision-makers is the all-or-nothing stand pitched by the environmental lobby for a total ban on chlorine by papermakers. Such a ban isn't warranted.