In response to requests from the chemical industry the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has extended the public comment period on new cleanup goals for dioxin. Critics worry that this extension may signal a softening of EPA’s commitment to addressing the dioxin problem.

Last year as part of an Obama administration promise of swift action on the Dow dioxin contamination of the Saginaw River watershed, EPA pledged to expedite a long-stalled review of the health effects of dioxin and to publish it by the end of 2010. In the meantime, the agency promised to review state and international dioxin cleanup rules and update the federal cleanup goals in a set of interim dioxin cleanup guidelines to be released by the end of 2009.

mimsg_dowontittabawasseeriver-300x193Dioxins are a class of powerful and long lasting toxins that cause cancer and damage reproduction. Chemical manufacturing operations at Dow Chemical’s Midland facility have released dioxins in the air and into the Tittabawassee River where they have spread over a 52 mile swath of river and land downstream from the plant.

On Dec. 31, EPA fulfilled its promise by announcing a set of strengthened dioxin cleanup goals.

The agency raised the recommended dioxin cleanup goal for residential soil from 1,000 parts per trillion (ppt) to 72 ppt and changed the recommended remediation levels for commercial/industrial soil from 5,000-20,000 ppt to 950 ppt.

“While EPA works to complete the dioxin reassessment, this interim guidance will help us make better informed decisions on cleanup alternatives at contaminated sites,” said Mathy Stanislaus, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. “We are following through on our commitment to use the best available science to help protect human health and the environment.”

EPA said that it would be take public comment on the draft interim guidelines for 50 days, and that it anticipated issuing the final interim guidelines in June 2010. The agency said that it would consider the need to update the interim guidelines after the dioxin assessment is finished.

The Lone Tree Council, a group that has been pushing for clean up of the mid-Michgan dioxin contamination for many years, celebrated EPA’s action.

“The EPA numbers are far more protective of human health,” Michelle Hurd Riddick of the Lone Tree Council said, “and we would like to personally thank Lisa Jackson for doing what no other EPA administrator has done – apply the science, look at public health and do what is right for communities and their natural resources”.

But not everyone welcomed the news.

The American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical industry including Dow Chemical, strongly objected to EPA’s plan for interim guidelines

ACC claimed that improved industry practice has already resulted in declining body burdens of dioxin and that a Dow-sponsored study by the University of Michigan had demonstrated that current dioxin regulations are adequately protective of human health.

“Importantly, reductions to the [Preliminary Remediation Guidelines] will have significant cost implications as scores, if not hundreds, of clean-up sites throughout the U.S. are reassessed based on lower, more conservative PRGs,” ACC stated, adding that “any modicum of public health benefit would pale in comparison to the significant costs.”

ACC urged EPA to complete its dioxin reassessment before issuing cleanup guidelines, and asked the agency to grant a 60 day extension to the comment period on the new guidelines because “a scientifically thorough and thoughtful review … cannot be reasonably achieved within the 50 day comment period.”

U.S. Magnesium LLC and the Texas Association of Manufacturers also asked for more time to comment on the plan.

Late last month EPA partially granted the requests for a longer comment period, extending the comment period on proposed interim dioxin cleanup levels by 35 days to April 2.

Michelle Hurd Riddick of the Lone Tree Council says she’s worried about the impact chemical companies may have on EPA efforts to address dioxin.

“I think [EPA director Lisa Jackson] could bend under pressure from chemical companies,“ Hurd Riddick said. “I think we’d all be foolish, particularly in tough economic times, to underestimate the power of lobby groups.”

Hurd Riddick said that the extension of the comment period is particularly troubling in view of other recent apparent EPA capitulations to the chemical industry.

In public speeches last year EPA director Lisa Jackson repeatedly stressed the need for new regulations of the hormone disruptor BPA or Bisphenol A, a chemical widely used in the plastic lining of food and beverage containers.

Jackson warned that the chemical “can affect brain development and has been linked to obesity and cancer.”

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that in late December representatives of the American Chemistry Council met with White House officials from the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and presented industry-funded studies about the safety of BPA.

Eight days after the meeting between industry and federal officials EPA announced that it would spend at least two more years considering how best to regulate Bisphenol A.

EPA officials were not available to speak about the dioxin guideline comment period extension on Tuesday afternoon.