ANNAPOLIS -- A House committee overwhelmingly defeated legislation yesterday that would have cut the amount of the toxic chemical dioxin that is allowed into rivers -- a change that could have cost a Western Maryland paper mill as much as $100 million.
Delegate Ronald A. Guns, D-Cecil, chairman of the Environmental Matters Committee, said after the 19-3 vote that a pending lawsuit by environmental groups challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's approval of Maryland's standard for dioxin levels had left the issue "up in the air."
Dioxin is one of the most potent cancer-causing substances, according to the EPA.
But Mr. Guns said testimony from both state environmental officials and executives from the Westvaco Corp. paper mill in Allegany County indicated the current level of dioxin-contaminated wastewater discharged into the Potomac River as a result of the plant's bleaching of wood pulp was "at a level where it is undetectable."
Adopting the higher standards, he said, might force Westvaco to make as much as $100 million in changes in the way it bleaches pulp, "with no assurance they would get to [the proposed new] level."
Nita Settina, legislative representative for the Potomac Chapter of the Sierra Club, said environmental groups had not really expected the bill to pass but wanted the dioxin issue debated before lawmakers and the public.
"We know it is as toxic as plutonium. That is why it is measured in parts per quadrillion," she said. "We also know Westvaco is discharging it. And we know Maryland has the highest cancer rate in the country."
"We also know Maryland's standards are 100 times weaker than the EPA recommended, but that 20 other states have adopted the EPA standard. The only ones who don't adopt those standards are the ones with paper mills," he said.
Delegate Lawrence A. LaMotte, D-Baltimore County, the bill's sponsor, said many members of the committee thought standards for the discharge of toxic substances should not be arbitrarily set in law by politicians but rather left to environmental experts to decide.
The issue arose last fall when Maryland received federal approval of a new standard that allows 100 times more dioxin in its streams and rivers than the EPA recommends.
Environmental groups complained the standard would lead to consumption of contaminated fish and would prompt other states to reduce standards in an effort to keep industries from leaving. The state advised fishermen last year to limit their intake of fish caught below the Westvaco plant because of high levels of dioxin found in the fish's skin and fatty tissue.
Last month, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Maryland Conservation Council and three other environmental groups sued the EPA in U.S. District Court in Virginia. The suit contends that the EPA's approval of Maryland's standard puts residents and visitors who fish in the Potomac at risk.