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Published: Sunday, March 07, 1993
Page: P1A
Byline: Ken Ward Jr.

Caperton administration-backed legislation that would severely weaken West Virginia's water pollution regulations is fast becoming one of the hottest issues of the session.

State Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, went so far last week as to call for a state-sponsored advertising campaign to counter a labor coalition's ads dubbing the changes a "Cancer Creek Bill." Bob Brunner, chief spokesman for Gov. Gaston Caperton, said Commerce Secretary John Ranson didn't reverse the administration's earlier stance when he told a Senate committee on Thursday that the governor backed the bill.

"The governor's always been for the bill," Brunner said late Friday.

"If West Virginia's water quality standards are substantially in excess of the standards implemented by other states, why would industry want to come in? West Virginia is really hampering itself," Brunner said.

Members of the Legislative Rule-Making Review Committee rejected the weaker regulations in early February, but a push from Caperton probably means the proposals will resurface.

Steve White, director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, said attention focused on one section of the bill - a change in dioxin regulations - is overshadowing a change that could dramatically increase the amount of all cancer-causing chemicals dumped into state waterways.

"It's a kind of confusing issue and it needs some clarification," White said late Friday. "What the law will change is every river, every stream in the state." Proposed changes in dioxin regulations are aimed at luring Alabama River Pulp and Paper Co. to West Virginia. The company has an on-again, off-again plan to build a $1 billion mill creating 1,000 jobs in Mason County.

At times, Alabama River Pulp and Paper has blamed project delays on a glut in the paper market. Other times, they have refused to publicly discuss their plans.

Project supporters contend the trades foundation is involved in the issue only because the company would build with non-union construction workers, but White said that's not the case.

Dioxins, which don't occur naturally, are the unwanted byproduct of the chlorine-bleaching process used by many pulp and paper mills to make paper whiter. Environmentalists believe the U.S. paper industry should begin using new bleaching methods now used by other countries that don't use chlorine and don't produce dioxin.

Despite industry arguments to the contrary, a Congressional report issued last year by the late Rep. Ted Weiss, D-N.Y., concluded that dioxin can be harmful even in very tiny amounts.

A proposal from the state Water Resources Board, now backed by Caperton but opposed by labor and environmental groups, would increase by nearly 77 times the amount of dioxin that can be legally dumped into state waterways.

Brunner said numerous times last year that Caperton did not support the change because Alabama Pulp and Paper said it could operate its plant without the weaker regulation.

But last week, Ranson and Brunner said Caperton wants the change because the company informed him they could not consider locating the huge development in West Virginia if the current, tougher standards remain.

Both said the governor also wants to change the way state regulators calculate how much pollution industry can legally discharge into rivers and streams.

Currently, pollution rates are based on the amount of water flowing in a river during the seven lowest "flow days" over the last 100 years. West Virginia has used this method for almost 23 years, since Congress approved the federal Clean Water Act, White said.

The proposed change would calculate pollution based on the "harmonic mean," or the average daily flow for a river or stream Supporters say the harmonic mean is a more accurate way to calculate pollution rates. EPA officials approve of the method, but White says not for rivers - such as the Ohio and Kanawha - where water level fluctuates widely.

A study paid for by the trade unions found that harmonic mean would increase by seven times the amount of cancer-causing chemicals dumped into the Ohio River. The amount dumped into the Kanawha River would increase by five times and the amount dumped into the Greenbrier River by almost eight times, the study said.

If the change becomes law, manufacturing giants such as Union Carbide, Du Pont and Monsanto could apply for new water pollution permits and might be allowed to greatly increase the amount of chemicals they dump into rivers. Increases in many chemicals, including benzene, chloroform, chlordane and dichloroethane, could be approved.

"Really, what we're saying is keep it the way it is," White said. "What happens when the water's low and they're still dumping out what we said they could in an average flow? There's a higher concentration of chemicals in the streams.

"The paper mill is a deflection of the real issue in my opinion," White said. "What if they change everything and the mill doesn't come?"

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