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U.S. Plans to Cut Paper Mills’ Dioxin Discharges : Environment: The new curbs on the cancer-causing chemical came out of a suit against the EPA by activists.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Extending a running battle to reduce cancer-causing dioxin in the environment, government officials Monday announced plans to reduce paper mills’ discharges of the compound into streams and to tighten controls on disposal of the mills’ sludge, sometimes used as fertilizer.

Officials of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration said efforts to reduce the amounts of dioxin in bleached paper products used in food packaging will also continue, although amounts in the vast majority of the products are “exceedingly low.”

The announcement of the planned actions came in fulfillment of a 1988 consent decree growing out of a court suit against the EPA by the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Wildlife Federation.

After a survey of 104 of the approximately 600 paper mills in the country, EPA Deputy Administrator F. Henry Habicht II said Monday that the chief concern is over the risk to people whose diet is heavily based on fish caught within a mile or two of a mill.

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Although the data is still being gathered and analyzed to locate spots where the danger is higher, Habicht said the cancer risk could be greater than one chance in 1,000 for people who eat a large amount of fish from a contaminated area every day over a lifetime.

While regulations are being prepared to reduce the discharge of dioxin from paper plants, Habicht said the heavily contaminated areas will be pinned down and federal officials will work with states to end fishing in the hazardous stream sections. He emphasized that these circumstances are relatively few and that consumers have no need for concern about fish in grocery stores or caught by commercial fishermen.

One of dozens of chlorine compounds resulting from a variety of manufacturing processes, dioxin was linked to the pulp paper industry in 1985 and to bleached paper products in 1987. In recent years, the paper industry estimates that about $1 billion has been spent to reduce dioxin in its effluent. The EPA estimated that the cost of the tightened regulations will probably be in the neighborhood of $20 million per mill.

Attorneys for the National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Defense Fund were notified Monday that the EPA will be prepared to issue proposed regulations on paper mill effluent within 18 months and within a year will release draft regulations on sludge from pulp mill operations. One option to be considered, Habicht said, will be a ban on the use of such sludge for fertilizer or soil conditioning.

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Estimates are that only about 5% of the sludge produced by pulp paper plants is used for fertilizer or soil conditioning; the rest of it goes into landfills. Although the latter is not viewed as a risk, the landfill data will be evaluated at the same time that regulations are being written on the use of sludge for soil conditioning.

Responding to the announcement by Habicht and Acting Commissioner James Benson of the FDA, the American Paper Institute pledged that the industry will continue voluntary efforts to reduce its dioxin production.

The environmental organization Greenpeace, which has long pressured the EPA to take more aggressive action, renewed its call Monday for an end to the use of chlorine-based bleaches on pulp wood by 1993. “Dioxin accounts for just a fraction of the health risks posed by pulp and paper mill pollution,” said Mark Floegel of the organization’s pulp and paper campaign. “All of these pollutants can be eliminated by taking chlorine out of the bleaching process. The technology exists and is widely used throughout Europe to produce white paper without chlorine.”

While the FDA takes over efforts to further reduce dioxin in food-related paper products such as milk containers and coffee filters, monitoring of other paper products, such as disposable diapers, will be the responsibility of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

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Technology now available makes it possible to measure dioxin content down to parts per quadrillion, and Benson said the goal is to reach zero, a point where no molecule of dioxin would migrate from packaging into food products.

“This is not a major health problem,” he said. “We want to reduce the levels when we have an opportunity to do so.”


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