Rescuing TCE from regulatory limbo

When it comes to protecting us from chemical carcinogens, the Bush administration has never been part of the solution. In fact they have consistently taken the side of the solvent, in this case the ubiquitous (and notorious) chlorinated ethylene solvent, trichloroethylene, or TCE for short. One of the most prevalent contaminants in US groundwater, TCE has been in regulatory limbo for years while EPA does one evaluation after another. If it doesn't like the answer it gets from its scientists and outside panels, it kicks it over to the National Academy to study some more. NAS then confirms what other scientists have found.

TCE was considered a "probable human carcinogen" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in its 1995 evaluation. Since then the evidence has only become stronger. Now former presidential candidate John Kerry and current presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton are co-sponsoring legislation to force EPA to dislodge TCE from regulatory hyperspace:

The EPA has 12 months if the bill is enacted in which to draft new health standards for TCE in drinking water.

The bill would also issue "a health advisory standard for vapor intrusion (of TCE) within 12 months of enactment, and it would require the EPA to establish an Integrated Risk Information System reference concentration of trichloroethylene vapor with 18 months of enactment." (The Chicopee (MA) Republican)

TCE and its close chemical cousin perchloroethylene (PCE, the "dry-cleaning solvent") were responsible for contaminating the drinking water of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, making it one of the largest single source water contaminations ever. Over the decades over a million military recruits and their families passed through this training base. The Camp Lejeune affair is now the subject of scientific investigation into many complaints of cancer, birth defects and other illnesses among military families. But it's not just Camp Lejeune. TCE and PCE exposures affect millions of Americans and have cost billions of dollars to remediate.

You'd think with all that, the federal government would be moving with all deliberate speed to issue guidance and set out what needs to be known and what isn't known. You'd think. But it seems they need to be compelled by law.

Since this administration doesn't obey laws, we'll still probably have to wait another year and a half to get moving on something that should have been addressed a six and a half years ago.

These guys are a national disaster.

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Wow, you'd think from reading your article that TCE (and PCE) are not regulated. They are already heavily regulated on several fronts, from drinking water to hazardous waste management to air emissions to Superfund sites. If that were not true, you could not cite that it has "cost billions of dollars to remediate". A huge development on the environmental front over the years has been the search for and use by business of alternative chemicals. Why? Because long-time regulation makes use of chlorinated solvents like TCE too expensive. Market driven incentives!

No surprise that the federal military reservations are among the most hopelessly contaminated in the country. You can add Otis/Camp Edwards on Cape Cod to that list. TCE contamination is threatening all of Cape Cod's drinking water. Not from current use, from haphazard practices decades ago. On a national scale, we can thank the post-WWII chemical revolution for the legacy of contaminated sites.

As far as vapor intrusion, that is cruising along nicely, thank you. Just like Kerry and Clinton to pretend they might have anything at all to do with implementation of the developing industry standard. New York State has taken the hardest line and is in large part driving the standard that EPA and others will accept. It won't have anything at all to do with what Kerry and Clinton are doing.

I'm not knocking an EPA-sponsored IRIS analysis. It just won't make any noticeable difference in environmental regulation. TCE is already highly regulated.

Brooks: The Kerry initiative is symbolic of the lock-up on TCE and PCE. Yes, it's regulated in community drinking water supplies (MCL of 5 ppb and RMCL of zero) but the occupational environment is lagging. More iimportantly from my point of view is the assessment of hazard, including the cancer potency factor and the other adverse health effects. We canperhaps argue about what "highly regulated" means. It means not just regs on the books but enforced, too. In that sense, nothing is highly regulated by this administration, of course.

You are very optimistic about alternatives. TCE has declined but not PCE and one reason is the interference by the Halogenated Solvents Industry Association. Laws and regs are only one technology driver. Civil actions are another. And in all of these, true engagement by federal agencies allegedly tasked with protecting us is essential. Not in this administration, I guess.

Drinking water regulation is the least of the carrots. TCE has long been highly regulated in the hazardous waste and Superfund and air emissions industries. That has not changed during the Bush administration. There are significant incentives to control or limit use of products like TCE because of the high expense of management and cleanup and yes, enforcement.

One area where EPA could make a significant difference is in imposing nationwide landfill standards on design and management. Historically that has been considered a local concern to be regulated by municipalities and states and states have not been willing to give up that authority. However, EPA does set the standard for what is solid v. hazardous waste, and therefore what may be accepted at the landfill.

One area where EPA is making a significance difference is in the development, alongside private industry and state government, of a vapor intrusion standard. You make an assumption, without basis, that EPA is not intimately involved. Already during the Bush administration, EPA has set a level of due diligence inquiry in the assessment of area land uses (like dry cleaners) in order to evaluate the likelihood that a property has been impacted. The vapor intrusion standard will be the next major step. If the source of the groundwater volatiles is upgradient, then installation of appropriate vapor barriers may be all that is warranted to protect the occupants. This is proceeding with or without the additional health analysis you are calling for.

If occupational exposure was your main concern, then your focus should be more on OSHA regulation and enforcement than EPA. I think you mistake EPA for the Federal Department of Public Health. It isnt, it wasnt intended to be.

Brooks: You are correct that EPA is not a health agency but not correct I mistake them for one. I have worked with them for decades and I know their mission and also know that how they operate is dependent on the tone and forces set by top management. There are many wonderful dedicated people who work for EPA and my hat's off to them. But the agency has become a lapdog, not a watchdog, and it affects everything, including how they handle (or don't) TCE. I would agree that PCE is a bigger problem because the industry is abandoning TCE (not because EPA has regulated it so tightly). EPA could hasten the same process for PCE but hasn't. As for the Superfund program, what was that again? Oh, I remember.