A Metro story yesterday contained incorrect figures for reductions in dioxin discharges at two Westvaco paper plants. The plants have reduced discharges by more than 96 percent, the company says. (Published 8/24/90)

The environmental group Greenpeace criticized Maryland and Virginia yesterday for being tardy and weak in issuing warnings urging people to limit consumption of potentially dioxin-tainted fish caught near paper plants in the two states.

Officials of the two states defended their actions and said the issue of dioxin warnings is an example of how risk assessment in public health is a murky science.

Virginia issued a warning in December urging that "longtime fishermen or pregnant women should limit or discontinue consumption" of fish caught from the Jackson and James rivers near a Westvaco paper plant in Covington.

In June, Maryland warned people not to eat bottom-feeding fish such as catfish caught on the upper Potomac River near a Westvaco plant in Luke and to limit consumption of other fish. The state issued an advisory last year saying no action was necessary, but changed its mind under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The warnings are aimed at private fishermen because neither river has major commercial fishing in the affected area. Fish caught farther away from the paper mills have much lower levels of dioxin, and those caught in the Washington area are not affected by the warning.

Dioxin is a byproduct of the chlorine bleaching process at paper mills and is an ingredient of the Vietnam War era defoliant Agent Orange. It is known to cause cancer in animals and is a suspected human carcinogen, although some scientists -- including a top official of the Centers for Disease Control -- now say its risk may not be as great as once thought.

Greenpeace released a memo yesterday that the EPA sent to Maryland last year concluding that eating some fish caught near the Western Maryland plant could pose a higher cancer risk than the agency considers acceptable. A similar memo was sent to Virginia.

Gail Martin, Greenpeace pulp and paper campaigner, said the memos show the two states "are more interested in protecting the industry than in protecting public health."

Greenpeace favors far stricter standards on dioxin than even the EPA has issued, and wants both states to ban all discharges of dioxin.

Maryland and Virginia officials said the EPA guidelines, which are being reviewed, are tighter than they believe necessary. They favor looser limits issued by the CDC or the Food and Drug Administration.

Katherine Farrell, Maryland's assistant secretary of the environment, said Maryland's turnaround came not because of new information, but because "We wanted to provide some consistency with what's going on around us." West Virginia, which also is downstream from the paper mill, issued a health warning nearly a year ago.

"It ends up being a judgment call," she said.

Virginia officials conceded yesterday that getting the word out on their fish advisory is slow. The state first received EPA data on dioxin found in Virginia fish samples last August and spent six weeks analyzing it before deciding to issue an advisory. It took two months more to get the advisory approved and published.

Eight months after it was issued, fishermen still are not being warned about the Virginia advisory in the enclosure they receive when they get their licenses because it was printed before the Westvaco plant was added. The state has yet to put up signs on the rivers, although it plans to do so within several weeks.

Westvaco officials said yesterday they are spending millions of dollars to reduce dioxin discharges from their plants. The Maryland plant has cut discharges by 81 percent, and the Virginia plant by 76 percent.