Maryland has received federal approval of a new standard that allows 100 times more of the toxic chemical dioxin in its streams and rivers than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends.
Environmental groups blasted the new state water quality standard yesterday, saying it would lead to consumption of contaminated fish and a relaxation of standards nationwide as states try to keep their industries from moving to less stringent areas. Regional administrator Edwin P. Erickson announced EPA's approval of Maryland's standard on Friday.
Maryland Secretary of Environment Martin Walsh defended the standard yesterday.
"We used federal figures from the Food and Drug Administration, which is the outfit that is responsible for the eating standards of the country. These standards do a very good job of taking care of public health," he said.
"I think my job, and the department's job, is to look out for public safety."
Maryland's new standard will allow only 1.2 parts of dioxin per quadrillion parts of water. A quadrillion is 1,000 billion. At that level, dioxin cannot even be detected with current technology, Mr. Walsh said.
However, the EPA's guideline is only 0.013 parts per quadrillion -- nearly 100 times more stringent than the standard it approved for Maryland.
The standard is based on drinking 2 liters of water, and eating an average of 6.5 grams of fish per day over 70 years.
Dioxin has been called one of the most carcinogenic substances known to man and has been found in the wastewater of the Westvaco paper mill in the Potomac River town of Luke.
Mr. Erickson said the EPA is obliged by law to accept standards that are "scientifically defensible." Since Maryland used factors from another regulatory agency -- the Food and Drug Administration -- the EPA could hardly turn Maryland down, he said.
Peter S. Tinsley, the state's director of water quality programs, said, "People have to understand we're not making our standards less stringent. We've never established a standard before, and 1.2 parts per quadrillion is damned small."
Most states use the EPA standard, not the FDA standard, federal officials said.
Though state officials insist the new allowable dioxin level poses no threat to public health, environmental groups said that people who eat fish caught in Maryland could be exposed to a higher risk of cancer.
"Frankly, we're appalled," said Peter L. DeFur, a staff scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, based in Richmond, Va.
"What has happened is that living within the borders of Maryland is now one hundred times more hazardous than living within the borders of any other state," he said.
Fish in the upper reaches of the Potomac are tainted with dioxin now, said Diane Cameron, a researcher with Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, and she noted that a state advisory on eating fish from the river is still in effect.
"On the one hand, EPA has been saying to Maryland, 'We want you to issue dioxin fish advisories.' On the other hand, EPA is now saying, 'It's OK to allow more dioxin contamination of Maryland's rivers, the fish that swim in them and the anglers who eat the fish.'"
Both groups said the decision would touch off a national economic competition as heavy industries in one state attempt to use a more lenient standard to pressure other states to lower their standards.
"This was the very thing EPA was supposed to stop, with national standards," Mr. DeFur said. "This could be a devastating blow to control of toxic substances in this country."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a guideline of .013 parts per quadrillion of dioxin for states to use when setting their own standards for how much of the chemical should be allowed in lakes, streams or bays. The EPA must approve each state standard; 20 states have standards in effect.
*Georgia proposed the least stringent standard of 7.2 parts per quadrillion, which the EPA refused to approve.
*Maryland proposed a standard of 1.2 parts per quadrillion, which the EPA approved on Friday. Virginia and Alabama have proposed identical standards, which have not yet been approved by the EPA.
*Minnesota has proposed the most stringent standard of all: .00061 parts per quadrillion, still pending before the EPA.