By JEFF MONTGOMERY and MIKE BILLINGTON, Delaware Online – The News Journal
Reports link the chemical byproduct to cancer and other ailments — and Delaware leads the United States in production of it and PCBs.
A recent national report that stressed links between dioxin and cancer is raising concerns in Delaware, where thousands of tons of dioxin-tainted wastes have been spilled, buried or stored.
Delaware ranks No. 1 in the nation in the production of dioxins, furans and dioxinlike polychlorinated biphenyls, industrial byproducts that in some cases are routinely trickled into the Delaware River.
The Edge Moor wastewater plant, the Delaware City refinery and the Wilmington Amtrak repair shops are among the region’s top sources of dioxins and dioxinlike PCBs.
The National Academy of Sciences recently confirmed that dioxin is highly toxic and known or likely to cause cancer. Exposure also can lead to birth defects and other health problems.
One now-shuttered Delaware City business, the former Standard Chlorine of Delaware Inc., supplied and then recycled some of the chemicals used to produce the herbicide Agent Orange, a defoliant that made dioxin a household word after the Vietnam War.
Experts say this puts Vietnam veterans in Delaware at double the risk for exposure.
“Delawareans have probably been more heavily exposed to dioxin than most other populations,” said Alan Muller, who directs the environmental group Green Delaware. “Given the near total inaction in Delaware on dioxin-related issues, these reports confirm the need for much more aggressive and timely action to protect the public.”
Environmental activist Lois Gibbs, executive director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice in Falls Church, Va., has made several trips to Delaware and New Jersey over the years to argue against proposals to pump dioxin wastes into the Delaware River.
Gibbs said the new report may help government agencies get tough with polluters.
“The chemical industry has been stalling the release of this information for 21 years,” she said. “Now that it’s out, agencies can start building policies for cleanups.”
Dioxins, furans and dioxin-like PCBs “are detected at low concentrations in virtually all organisms,” scientists have found.
In humans, the toxins can cause skin lesions, liver disease and possibly cancer. Other health effects can include thyroid and blood disorders, neurological problems, heart disease, diabetes and other metabolic disorders.
Late last month, another report, this one issued by the World Health Organization, upgraded the risk associated with a chemical found in huge amounts at DuPont’s Edge Moor plant.
The state is examining the report to see what, if anything, needs to be done.
“We’re going to look at it and we may have to have our third-party contractor [for the Edge Moor cleanup] look at it,” said Kathy Stiller-Banning, a Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control program manager.
Edge Moor’s plant ranks as the nation’s largest producer of dioxin byproducts, a fact that led to a series of cleanup proposals and reviews of plant operating methods.
Company, state and community officials have for years debated options for removing or containing a 15-acre, 500,000-ton pile of dioxin-tainted leftovers from ore processing.
DuPont is evaluating the new study as well, said, Eddie Johnston, a manager at DuPont’s Titanium Technologies Business. “We have just received the report ourselves,” he said.
DNREC was not immediately able to list other dioxin-contaminated sites in the state.
Earlier studies misleading
Dioxins, furans and PCBs most often form as unwanted byproducts in chemical processes involving chlorine and high temperatures. Delaware, once at the center of the nation’s largest chemical complex, had several such industries, including Edge Moor, Standard Chlorine of Delaware and its successor, Metachem Products.
State and federal cleanup studies in Delaware have been complicated because low levels of dioxins are routinely found in the environment, making it harder to link contamination to individual polluters.
Rick Hind, toxic programs director for the environmental group Greenpeace USA, said the new academy report ranks dioxins as a major global concern.
“What the report does say is that cleanups of dioxin contamination need to go ahead and need to be more strict,” Hind said. “That could have a very specific impact on the cleanup of the mountain of dioxin at the DuPont plant in Wilmington.”
The EPA singled out Edge Moor for close attention in the late 1990s after finding that some of DuPont’s practices produced dioxins and wastes that deserved a “hazardous” label and special disposal restrictions. That created a public controversy over DuPont’s plan to permanently seal a 15-acre waste pile along the river east of Wilmington.
DuPont officials argued that the dioxins at Edge Moor are a weaker cousin of the most dangerous variety and can remain on site under a protective liner forever.
However, the World Health Organization report released June 27 said dioxins like those at Edge Moor should be considered three to 10 times more hazardous than previously acknowledged.
Steve Tindall, a resident of the Cragmere neighborhood northwest of the Edge Moor plant, said Delaware should take the new report seriously. “I would be concerned if they were using old standards when something state of the art is available,” he said.
Even higher dioxin concentrations were found at the bankrupt Metachem Products chemical plant north of Delaware City. It’s now the site of a federal cleanup that could cost taxpayers $100 million or more.
Metachem took over the plant from Standard Chlorine in 1998 and then abruptly shut it down, leaving a 75-acre toxic-waste cleanup problem and more than $60 million in unpaid bills.
State officials have said some unapproved practices at the factory increased the chance of creating unwanted dioxin or PCBs. The risks were underscored in 2003, when a Delaware River Basin Commission described Metachem as one of the region’s top sources of PCB-tainted runoff to the Delaware River.
Marvin Olson, a Vietnam veteran and longtime resident of the Emerald Ridge neighborhood northwest of the Metachem plant, said odors have dwindled from the factory since the shutdown. He nevertheless criticized regulators for failing to act on known pollution problems.
“I saw the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam and in veterans today,” Olson said. “I don’t think they’re doing what they need to to make it necessary for these kinds of places to actually make changes. They’re giving them too long a lead time. I work at a nuclear plant, and if we operated the way they do here, we’d be shut down.”
The EPA spent millions of dollars processing the abandoned chemicals at Metachem and turning out thousands of huge cubes, three feet on a side.
Those cubes are stored at a warehouse near Delaware City, awaiting money to pay for their transfer to one of several toxic-waste incinerators in the nation.