A group of Virginia state agencies, prodded by commercial seafood interests and their political allies, is proposing to drastically relax government safety standards for pesticide Kepone, a change that would effectively end a seven-year state ban on commercial fishing in the James River.

The proposal illustrates the interplay of politics and economics on the continuing debate over Kepone, a highly toxic chemical and suspected carcinogen that was secretly dumped into the James during the late 1960s and early 1970s, causing one of Virginia's worst environmental disasters.

State health officials, arguing that Kepone contamination is far less extensive than was believed, have recommended a tripling in the level of Kepone allowed in James River fish that are sold commercially, according to Betty Diener, Gov. Charles S. Robb's secretary of commerce.

Leading Kepone researchers say, however, there is no medical or scientific evidence to justify such a dramatic change in government safety limits, which ultimately would have to be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Environmental groups are charging that the proposal stems more from political and economic pressure than any new breakthrough in Kepone research.

"They're doing this more for political reasons," says Timothy Hayes, Virginia project director of the Environmental Defense Fund. "They're taking the philosophy that we don't have a problem with Kepone, we have a problem with EPA."

The political push to date has come largely from two influential state legislators from Newport News: Del. Theodore Morrison, a Democrat, and state Sen. Herbert Bateman, a Republican. Both have advocated reopening the James while representing, as lawyers, commercial fishing interests that have been affected by the ban.

Two years ago, for example, Morrison represented watermen and marina operators who were prosecuted for violating the state's fishing ban and then challenged in court former Gov. John N. Dalton's authority to impose it. Morrison later introduced a General Assembly resolution that required state agencies to reexamine the current safety limits or "action levels" that are used to justify the ban.

The current safety limits, says Morrison, were an "arbitrary shot in the dark" and "an absurdity" because, he says, "there's no known case of any damage done to any human being from Kepone contamination.

"Maybe they had a Rubik's Cube or a dart board or Ouija Board to set it at the current level," he said.

Medical researchers counter that such arguments point up the problem faced by society in dealing with potential carcinogens. Kepone is a known cancer-causing agent in labratory animals. But as with benzene, saccharin, DES and hundreds of other substances, the medical effects on human beings aren't likely to be known for decades.

"There's nothing new that has been learned about Kepone that would justify changing the maximum permissable intake," said Dr. Philip Guzelian, a liver specialist at the Medical College of Virginia and a leading authority on Kepone.

"If Kepone is a carcinogen, then one would suspect there would be a long latency period of 20 to 30 years," he said. "And since Kepone has only been around for about 10 years, the fact that no human beings have been caused cancer is relatively unimportant."

Controversy over Kepone, which was used largely for dusting banana and European potato crops, dates back to 1975 when it was discovered that Allied Chemical Corp. and Life Sciences Products Co., a small Hopewell firm, illegally discharged massive amounts of the chemical into the James. After national publicity that hurt the state's seafood industry, Gov. Mills E. Godwin imposed a blanket ban on fishing--recreational and commercial--in the James.

Parts of the ban have been lifted and then reimposed by the state's governors, but it has been the federally mandated levels of Kepone allowed in commercial catches that have kept most of the river's watermen in port.

Those levels originally were based on a National Cancer Institute study that found that labratory mice and rats injected with kepone produced cancerous and malignant tumors in the their livers, as well as in their pituitary and mammary glands. The intake that produced the tumors was then multiplied by a traditional safety factor of 1,000 to establish the federal "action level" or safety limits for human beings--0.3 parts per million for all fin fish, such as eel, striped bass, rockfish, and croaker.

The new proposal is for a three-fold increase in the action level to 0.9 parts per million. These levels were calculated, said Diener, secretary of commerce and resources, because they would effectively permit Virginia to lift the fishing ban.

"They've set them so high that, in effect, no fish that has been caught in the last five years has ever exceeded them," Diener said. "It would completely open up all of the James River."

The Virginia Marine Products Commission has estimated that an end to the ban would generate about $2.5 million in increased annual income for the state's fishing economy and bring back about 500 mostly part-time fishermen along the James who were forced into retirement by the rule. Diener says that she intends to examine the issue from the point of view of "the public good, the public health" before approving the proposal, which would be sent to Robb and then the EPA. The governor declined this week to comment on the issue, saying he hasn't seen the proposal.

"We're really making a decision that may or may not affect people's health 30 years from now," Deiner said. "There's a lot of uncertainty."