The Obama administration is proposing tougher pollution standards that could lead to new cleanups of highly toxic dioxin at locations around the country. Naturally, industry groups and Republicans are objecting. And those objections will turn to a full-scale attack if the GOP wins control of the House in today's elections.
The Environmental Protection Agency expects to adopt the new standards this fall. Once that happens, federal and state officials will take a new look at sites that are known to have had major dioxin contamination - like the 50 miles of Michigan watershed where for decades Dow Chemical's Midland plant dumped dioxin byproducts. The officials will determine if more cleanup is needed.
Dioxins are toxic chemical byproducts from industrial processes such as pesticide and herbicide production, waste incineration, refining and smelting. One form of dioxin was a key ingredient in Agent Orange, the defoliant used by U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.
The World Health Organization says significant exposure to dioxins can damage human reproductive and immune systems. The EPA has characterized dioxins as "likely" human carcinogens. The agency will be reviewing that definition as part of its upcoming health risk assessment.
EPA officials say dioxins are dangerous to human health at lower concentrations than previously thought.
"We're driven by the need to protect against excessive risk of both cancer and non-cancer health concerns," Mathy Stanislaus, EPA assistant administrator for solid waste and emergency response, told the Associated Press. "We believe (the current standards) are not sufficiently protective and more stringent numbers are needed."
The EPA will be working from a list of 92 Superfund sites where dioxin is among the soil contaminants. In addition, the agency estimates that as many as 150 other hazardous waste sites may have dioxin contamination and will need reviewing.
Since 1998, the EPA has regarded dioxin soil concentrations of less than 1,000 parts per trillion (ppt) as safe for residential areas. It has considered 5,000 ppt to 20,000 ppt safe for commercial and industrial zones. The proposed new standards would dramatically lower the safe levels, to 72 ppt for residential areas and 950 ppt for commercial and industrial sites.
At one site that could get a new look, the former town of Times Beach, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, about 2,000 residents were relocated in 1983 after dioxin-contaminated oil was sprayed on roads to control dust. A $120 million cleanup was completed in 1997 after 265,000 tons of contaminated materials were incinerated. Two years later, the abandoned town was converted into a state park.
The 1,000 ppt standard was used for the Times Beach cleanup.
Marilyn Leistner, the last mayor of Times Beach, told the Associated Press she always suspected the cleanup was inadequate.
"My attitude is, 'I told you so. You should have done it in the first place,'" Leistner said.
Another site that may be reviewed for possible further cleanup is the notorious Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y. In the late 1970s hundreds of families were evacuated from the community after the discovery of 21,000 tons of toxic waste, including dioxin, that had been buried there by Hooker Chemical Co. The area was declared clean in 2004 after dioxin and other chemicals were removed or covered.
David Fischer, an attorney with the American Chemistry Council, objected to the proposed stricter standards, claiming concern for local communities. "It could mean a great deal of cost and disruption to communities and municipalities who thought their issues had been resolved," he told AP. "And there will be little if any public health benefit."
Similar objections were raised by Republican Michigan Congressman Dave Camp.
The American Chemistry Council is an industry group which counts among its members Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, BASF, Celanese and other chemical corporate giants, big pharmaceutical firms like Bayer, Eli Lilly and Merck, along with oil industry chemical operations such as BP Lubricants USA, Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., ExxonMobil Chemical Co., Marathon Petroleum and Shell Chemical, and the famous asbestos polluter W. R. Grace.
They will get a boost if Republicans retake control of the House in today's elections. Republican leaders say they will launch "a blistering attack on the Obama administration's environmental policies," the Los Angeles Times reports.
"The attack, according to senior Republicans, will seek to portray the EPA as abusing its authority and damaging the economy with needless government regulations."
The GOP reportedly plans to put the EPA and environmental policymakers on the defensive by launching "wide-ranging and sustained investigations by congressional committees," according to the LA Times. The aim would be to make the administration retreat on environmental efforts as the 2012 presidential elections get closer.
Another Michigan Republican, Rep. Fred Upton, the ranking Republican on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, declared in a recent op ed that the GOP is preparing to "declare war on the regulatory state."
Photo: Sign at a rally outside an EPA hearing in Seattle last year. (Seven_Null7 CC 2.0)