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Saying the risks from dioxin are lower than previously believed, four paper companies are asking a North Carolina agency to adopt more lenient standards for the toxic chemical.

The companies say current regulations could force them to shut down or curtail operations.``Recent scientific evidence shows that the potential risk from dioxin is less than previously thought,' says the two-volume petition filed with the state Environmental Management Commission. ``Other states in the Southeastern United States have adopted water-quality standards for dioxin significantly higher than North Carolina after considering recent scientific evidence.'

The commission adopted the dioxin standard this past summer based on levels recommended by the federal government.

Companies filing the petition were: Champion International Corp., which has mills in Canton and Roanoke Rapids; the Weyerhaeuser Co., which has mills in Plymouth and New Bern; Federal Paper Board Co., which has a mill in Columbus County; and P.H. Glatfelter Co., which has a mill in Transylvania County.

The companies threatened to sue the state if the commission doesn't change its standard, contending the rule could put thousands of people out of work.

Dioxin, a byproduct of the pulp-bleaching process, can be poisonous in extremely small amounts. Laboratory studies have shown it can cause cancer in animals, but studies on humans have been inconclusive.

North Carolina's standard is based on levels recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And it is supported by environmentalists, although they acknowledge that scientists disagree.

The North Carolina standard, which took effect Oct. 1, requires that dioxin levels not exceed .013 parts per quadrillion (ppq) in sources of drinking water and .014 ppq in all other waters of the state.

Other Southeastern states have adopted dioxin controls that are 70 to more than 500 times less restrictive than the North Carolina standard, the companies' petition states.

The paper companies urged the Environmental Management Commission to adopt new dioxin standards in the range of 1.0 to 7.2 ppq, which would be comparable to levels adopted in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Maryland and Virginia.

State officials said they needed time to review the petition before commenting on the claims but said they had expected the appeal.

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