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A 'dioxin frenzy' in Missouri, Arkansas -- congressmen

By GREGORY GORDON

WASHINGTON -- The Environmental Protection Agency is causing a 'dioxin frenzy' by failing to order emergency cleanups of that and other deadly poisons in Missouri and Arkansas, several congressmen say.

At a packed House subcommittee hearing, panel chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., and two colleagues blasted the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to order emergency 'Superfund' cleanups in Missouri and at an Arkansas neighborhood contaminated with cancer-causing PCBs.

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Demanding action in Missouri, where children play in neighborhoods contaminated with dioxin, Rep. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told a top EPA official Friday, 'There's just a dioxin frenzy out there. People are confused. There's chaos. Nothing you people or your region are doing would give people any reason to sleep any better.'

Missouri state Rep. Bob Feigenbaum said cleanup costs may approach $30 million for numerous Missouri dioxin sites. He predicted the hazardous waste crisis 'could pale Love Canal' in New York state -- the nation's most widely publicized toxic waste dump site.

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Wyden warned Assistant EPA Administrator Rita Lavelle that if the agency attempts to relax past cleanup standards for dioxin in Missouri, a move internal memos indicate is being considered, 'you'll have one whale of a fight on your hands in the Congress.'

Dingell also accused EPA officials of withholding documents on the dioxin problem from his House energy and commerce subcommittee.

Ms. Lavelle denied the charge, saying she had not made a decison on what action to take but would by Jan. 15 after reviewing analyses of more than 350 test soil samples from the worst site in Imperial, Mo., outside St. Louis.

EPA intends 'to move ahead as quickly as possible' and will not base the decision on cost, she said.

The dioxin waste emanated from a southwest Missouri plant site and was mainly spread by the spraying of dioxin-contaminated oil on roads and soil for dust control in the early 1970s.

Ms. Lavelle defended as 'right and proper' her decision last month to reject a request from the agency's regional office for a $250,000 Superfund cleanup of polychlorinated biphenyls in Fort Smith, Ark.

But Rep. Mike Synar, D-Okla., asserted she made the decision without receiving a formal assessment on the dangers to area residents and based it mainly on whether levels were high enough to kill people. The day after she rejected an emergency cleanup in Fort Smith, the state conducted a partial cleanup.

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Dr. Marvin Legator of the University of Texas, calling for relocation of residents of the contaminated area in Imperial, said it was 'ridiculous' for EPA to be analyzing risk in the area if there is any presence of dioxin at all.

Legator noted that although residents may have been exposed to the toxic substance for years, continued exposure could have an adverse effect on pregnancies.

Legator emphasized dioxin can be dangerous even at the parts-per-trillion range, equating one part per trillion to just two drops of water out of all the water in 100 Olympic-sized pools. Tests in the Imperial neighborhood have found levels as high as 900 parts per billion.

Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a scientist for the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund, agreed, noting residents around Love Canal were temporarily evacuated. She said levels of the toxic chemicals in Missouri and Arkansas are 'so high as to alarm anyone with the most rudimentary acquaintance with modern toxicology.'

But Dr. Vernon Houk, acting chief of the Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said that after being exposed for as many as five years, 'a couple of more weeks or a couple of more months' would make little difference to families in the area.

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