ANNAPOLIS — To reduce the estimated risk of extra cancer deaths in Maryland fromone in 100,000 to one in 1 million, a Carroll delegate argued Thursday for raising the state water standard for the toxic chemical dioxinto the federally recommended level.
Environmentalists supported the bill introduced by Delegate Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Carroll, Baltimore, saying Maryland's current water quality standard is one of the most lenient in the nation, underestimates the degree to which minute levels of the chemical accumulate in fish and poses an unacceptably high human health risk.
But their arguments became bogged down by technical uncertaintiesonce House Environmental Matters Committee members began questioninghow the "imperceptible" levels recommended by LaMotte -- and the federal Environmental Protection Agency -- would be measured and enforced, whether the toxin has been proven to cause cancer in humans and what is an acceptable risk.
Maryland Department of the Environment officials and representatives from the Westvaco Corp. paper mill in Luke, Allegany County, objected to changing the standard. MDE Deputy Secretary Ronald Nelson said the state met its responsibility by adopting a standard -- approved last year by the EPA -- sufficient to protect human health and aquatic life.
Westvaco managers said the company employing 1,900 workers, the only recognized dioxin-polluter in the state, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on upgraded technology to vastly reduce the amount of dioxin in the plant's wastewaterthat flows into the Potomac River.
A drastic change in the standard would serve only to penalize their company, which could not guarantee that further costly equipment and processing modifications would result in compliance, they said.
Westvaco would meet Maryland's standard of 1.2 parts dioxin per quadrillion parts of water, although it can be measured only by testing the company's wastewater and projecting by computer model the concentration in the Potomac River, said Nelson. By computer model, the company's dioxin emission level exceeds EPA's standard of 0.013 parts per quadrillion -- almost 100 times higher than Maryland's standard, said a Westvaco vice president.
MDE has issued a fish consumption advisory for the upper Potomac River region near Westvaco cautioning residents and anglers in the area that high levels of dioxin were found in the fish.
Dioxin, formed as a byproduct of chlorines used in bleaching processes, has been known to cause cancer in animals and is a suspected carcinogen in humans. Arecent study concluded that the substance could contribute to birth defects. The EPA ranks dioxin as one of the most highly carcinogenic chemicals.
"Currently, the largest estuary in the United States, the Chesapeake Bay, has the most lenient water quality standards for the most toxic substance known to man," said LaMotte. "It is prudent public policy that the state of Maryland set limits that are as stringent as the standards established by EPA."
A coalition of environmental groups sued EPA last month, charging that the federal governmentallowed Maryland to set a standard for dioxin that is too lax and could endanger its residents and aquatic life.
An environmental engineer from a lead agency in the suit, the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, testified in support of LaMotte's bill and offered amendments that would make protective standards more specific.
"We believe people who rely on Maryland waters deserve better assumptions (about dioxin's cancer-causing potency and its accumulation in fish) and deserve better protections," said Diane Cameron. "We also believe Marylanders eat more fish than assumed."
Delegate Michael Weir, D-Baltimore County, said he didn't want the state to produce a "scare" that could hurt Maryland's commercial fishing industry. He argued that facts had not demonstrated that dioxin had caused higher cancer rates in the region near the paper mill.