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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Dioxin Update

Air Date: Week of

Paper mills around the nation are being scrutinized by the US federal Environmental Protection Agency. The state of Maine has a new anti-dioxin law that is the toughest in the nation but, critics say the new rules fail to go far enough to protect public health from the deadly dioxins and other dangerous by-products in paper mill waste water. From Maine Public Radio, Andrea DeLeon has our report.


CURWOOD: Paper mills in the state of Maine are being told to reduce deadly dioxins and other dangerous byproducts in their wastewater. The new law, approved by the Maine legislature, could provide a model for the rest of the nation. Dioxin regulations are now being rewritten by the US Environmental Protection Agency. While the Maine anti-dioxin law is the toughest in the nation, some people are saying that even so, it doesn't go far enough to protect public health. From Maine Public Broadcasting, Andrea DeLeone has our report.

(Tides washing up on a river bank; turbines in background)

DeLEONE: The Androscoggin River has worked hard for generations, spinning turbines and carrying wastewater from factories, paper mills, and towns in New Hampshire and Maine out to sea. Old timers recall knowing what color fabric the textile plants were dyeing by the color the river ran. And they recall the stench of sewage and mill waste. Those foul smells and unsightly colors have been cleaned up, and today the Androscoggin seems pristine as it flows past a small park in the western Maine town of Rumford. But environmentalists say looks are deceiving. Ann Hagstrom is with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

HAGSTROM: There's a discharge of millions of gallons of bleaching, polluted bleaching wastewater every day into those rivers, that contains dioxins, other organochlorines, other toxic pollutants, as well as color, odor, and foam. That's not good for our rivers. It's not good for our estuaries or our coastal waters.

DeLEONE: Nor are dioxins good for humans and animals. They've been linked to cancer, human reproductive problems, and a host of other maladies. These chemicals are an unwanted byproduct of the paper bleaching process. They may eventually find their way into fish and up the food chain to people. Industry officials and regulators say they share Ms. Hagstrom's concern. In fact, later this year the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to order paper makers to spend $1.4 billion to cut emissions of dioxins and furans. In Maine, the second biggest paper producing state, the legislature has approved a bill crafted by Maine Governor Angus King ordering the industry to adopt bleaching methods that would dramatically reduce dioxin levels in the waste stream.

KING: We're trying to come up with a results-oriented solution that says we don't want this stuff, dioxin, in our rivers. But we're not going to dictate the technology to get there. We just don't want the stuff here. Mr. Industry, you figure out how best to do it.

DeLEONE: Governor King is proud of this hands-off style of regulation. The new law doesn't tell the companies how to run their mills, as long as effluents from their bleaching plants have no detectable levels of dioxins, and fish sampled downstream of each mill contain no greater concentration of dioxins and furans than those taken above. Chlorine is the key ingredient in the deadly recipe for dioxin. Since bleaching with elemental or pure chlorine makes dioxin in relatively large amounts, all 7 Maine bleaching mills are expected to stop using the chemical in its elemental form. This one in Rumford already has.

(Loud machinery)

MAN: It's coming off at a fairly high consistency. It's already been washed. It's been through the bleaching process and you can just see that it's white.

DeLEONE: This massive cylindrical machine deep in the Meade Corporation's Rumford mill is turning cocoa-colored wood pulp white with the compound chlorine dioxide instead of elemental chlorine. Anticipating new regulations coming from both the state of Maine and the Federal Government, Meade is spending $40 million to make the switch. Steve Hudson is the mill's environmental manager. He says dioxin can no longer be detected in the mill's bleach plant effluent, and the levels of other pollutants in the water and air emissions have gone down, too. The two other bleaching mills on the Androscoggin have also announced plans to stop using elemental chlorine. Mr. Hudson says anglers may soon be able to eat fish caught in the river without fear of dioxin.

HUDSON: Every indication we've seen in talking with people that have studied the issue of dioxin in fish flesh and how long does it take a fish population to recover indicates that once you've made the conversion to elemental chlorine free, your fish populations tend to show a pretty quick response.

DeLEONE: The state toxicologist says he expects to lift dioxin advisories on Maine's paper- making rivers in just a few seasons. Activist Ann Hagstrom admits getting the legislature to impose new restrictions on an industry so critical to the state's economy is a victory. But the staff attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine isn't dusting off her fishing tackle. Ms. Hagstrom and others say the Maine law and the similar rules pending on the Federal level don't go far enough. She says since chlorine is still used in the plants, small undetectable amounts of dioxin could still be released into waterways. And she says no amount of dioxin is safe.

HAGSTROM: Dioxin is a very toxic chemical, and it's toxic in very minute amounts, in amounts that are often too small to measure. Dioxin is a cancer causing agent and it's also believed to have non-cancer effects in reproductive and immune systems and neurological systems. It is also believed that most of us have levels of dioxin in our bodies right now that are at or near levels where adverse health effects can occur. So that any additional dioxin should be of significant concern.

DeLEONE: The changeover in Maine's mills to the chlorine dioxide process could be followed by a nationwide conversion. The EPA is poised to require all bleaching mills to switch from elemental chlorine to chlorine dioxide processing. The Agency estimates the change will reduce the paper industry's water and air emissions of dioxins and furans by 90%. Environmentalists are disappointed with the EPA proposal. They'd like the industry to become totally chlorine-free, eliminating dioxins completely from the wastewater and from the smokestacks. Industry officials say that would cost paper companies an additional $3.1 billion. The new Federal rule, currently under review in the White House, is expected later this year. For Living on Earth, this is Andrea DeLeone in Portland, Maine.



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