The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced that it has approved Maryland's new toxic water pollution limits, which are being challenged in court by utilities and industries as being too stringent.
The EPA also approved the state's limit for industrial discharge of dioxin, a probable carcinogen, even though it is 100 times less stringent than recommended by the federal agency. That action may in turn be challenged in court by environmentalists.
While approving the state's new limits on 27 toxic pollutants, the EPA withheld action on a crucial aspect of the state's toxic pollution curbs, which is at the heart of the complaint by businesses that complying with the regulations will cost billions of dollars.
Federal officials said they planned to work with the Maryland Department of the Environment to craft a new policy on protecting fish and other aquatic life in stream "mixing zones," where wastewater emerges from an industrial outfall pipe and blends with the receiving waters.
Suits filed by Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., Bethlehem Steel Corp. and other companies challenged the state's policy requiring that toxic pollutants be removed before they reach streams and Chesapeake Bay. The businesses had argued for allowing mixing zones, which would allow pollutants to be diluted before being measured.
The state set a limit of 1.2 parts per quadrillion for dioxin, a toxic byproduct of paper bleaching. A Westvaco Corp. paper mill in Luke in Allegany County should be able to meet that limit on its discharge into the northern branch of the Potomac River.
Environmentalists had urged EPA to reject the state's dioxin limit, arguing that it was inconsistent with the agency's own effort to reduce dioxin contamination from paper mills around the country. But EPA said in a statement released today that it "has an obligation to approve water quality standards that are scientifically defensible."
Maryland environmental officials have petitioned the Baltimore Circuit Court to bring in EPA as a defendant in the suit filed by industry over the state's water quality standards, since many of the limits on individual toxic pollutants are based on research compiled by EPA scientists.