Dioxin contamination of Woonasquatucket River far worse than reported, epa tests show

Concentrations of dioxin in Woonasquatucket River sediment in North Providence are the second-highest levels ever detected on the planet, according to US EPA documents released on January 13 1999 by two environmental groups.

Citing an “imminent, substantial and ongoing health threat” posed by the dioxin, Action and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and Clean Water Action jointly filed legal petitions with several federal officials today, alleging that EPA’s own regional office in Boston failed to take proper steps to protect public health. The groups are demanding an emergency clean-up and health assessment of residents exposed to the river’s banks.

According to the documents released by the two groups, EPA scientists from the agency’s Narragansett laboratory found alarmingly high concentrations of dioxin in Woonasquatucket River sediment. Dioxin, a chemical byproduct of manufacturing processes involving chlorine, can cause cancer, reproductive system damage and other health problems among those exposed to it.

The highest dioxin levels were found behind the Allendale and Lymansville dams, where local residents are known to fish and which lie close to residential neighbourhoods, including a children’s baseball field.

“We are very concerned about the high levels of dioxin that were detected in the river,” said Aimee Tavares, Rhode Island Director, Clean Water Action. “People who live along the river and visit the river have a right to know just how high the levels are and the risk that they may be putting themselves in,” Tavares said.

The January, 1998 sediment sampling data from EPA show concentrations of the dioxin compound 2,3,7,8 TCDD greater than 8.2 parts per billion (ppb) in some locations. The average concentration of dioxin in river sediment in North America is 0.03 ppb and the hazard level for dioxin in soils established by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is one ppb.

According to EPA scientists and non-governmental scientists who looked at the data independently, the only place on the planet known to have higher sediment concentrations of dioxin is a stretch of the Passaic River in New Jersey adjacent to the plant that once produced Agent Orange.

PEER claims the EPA did not notify local residents of its findings until PEER formally requested the test results several months after they had first been reported by EPA scientists and confirmed by a separate EPA lab.

PEER says that after EPA released the data over the July 4 holiday weekend last year, the agency understated the severity of the findings and concluded that there was no health risk to local residents. To date, PEER says, the EPA has announced no plans to investigate possible dioxin sources or initiate any clean-up. The only step it has taken to reduce possible dioxin exposure to North Providence residents has been to post signs warning against fish consumption.

The two environmental organizations have filed three petitions, each with a separate governmental entity asking for immediate action. The first with the director of EPA’s national Office of Emergency Response in Washington DC calls for an investigation and cleanup of contaminated sites; a second with the Assistant Surgeon General in Atlanta calls for an assessment of health impacts; and a third with the EPA’s national Hazardous Waste and Superfund Ombudsman calls for an investigation into why the EPA’s New England regional office in Boston downplayed the significance of the contamination and failed to take appropriate action to protect public health at a time when federal, state and local officials are expending substantial resources to bring more people into contact with the Woonasquatucket through the Providence Plan and American Heritage Rivers programs.

Federal toxic clean-up laws require that the federal health and environmental agencies issue official responses to petitions such as those filed today.

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