Minnesota is set to impose sweeping restrictions on a cancer-causing industrial chemical, an effort sparked by the air pollution scandal at Twin Cities manufacturer Water Gremlin Co.
With just one nay vote, the state’s Republican-led Senate on Thursday passed a bill prohibiting most industrial uses of trichloroethylene (TCE) in the state.
The bill is the result of negotiations with House Democrats, who hold a majority in the lower chamber. The House is expected to pass the bill shortly.
The broad statewide restrictions are believed to be a first by a state.
Sen. Roger Chamberlain, the Lino Lakes Republican who sponsored the measure, said it only makes sense to get a dangerous chemical off the market when safe alternatives exist.
“More people will be protected from a potential cancer-causing agent, and that’s always good,” he said.
Laura Bishop, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), called it “just the right thing to do.”
While not a total ban, the statewide restrictions are far-reaching, prohibiting most commercial uses of the common industrial solvent by facilities with air-pollution permits.
There are targeted exceptions for hospitals, research, waste disposal or uses that result in zero emissions.
According to the MPCA, which worked on the bill, about 110 facilities around the state either use TCE or generate it as a byproduct.
The ban does not prohibit retailers from selling consumer products containing TCE, such as rug-cleaning fluids or paint strippers.
If Gov. Tim Walz signs it, restrictions would take effect June 1, 2022, and are expected to push companies toward less toxic alternatives.
TCE is still widely used in industrial processes in the United States, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies it as a human carcinogen and a developmental toxin. Under the previous administration, the EPA moved to ban certain uses of the toxic chemical. It’s been largely banned in the European Union.
Environmental groups lauded the move.
“Thank goodness for Minnesota’s leadership because the Trump administration has refused to protect people from TCE,” said Daniel Rosenberg, who directs federal toxics policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This toxic solvent is linked to cancer, fetal heart defects and other serious problems.”
The Senate bill was renamed the “White Bear Area Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group Ban TCE Act” for the residents who live near Water Gremlin, which is in White Bear Township. They pushed hard for the restrictions.
That felt like “a big honor,” said resident Sheri Smith. Smith said the group is “elated.” The vote brought her to tears of happiness, she said.
“What happened to the citizens of White Bear Lake and many other communities in our state is heartbreaking,” Smith said. “But this ban ensures it cannot happen again in my community or others throughout the state.”
“We have been working it, like you would not believe,” she said.
Smith said that she hasn’t suffered health effects from the TCE exposure that she’s aware of, but she believes many people who live around the plant have cancers that are linked to TCE exposure.
State health officials say the TCE concentrations in the air from the Water Gremlin releases were below levels where human health effects have been demonstrated. The cancer rates in the neighborhood around the plant were “virtually identical” to those in the seven-county metro area, the department found.
Before the Senate vote Thursday, Sen. Charles Wiger, DFL-Maplewood, told lawmakers that the citizens group “deserves the credit for getting us to the finish line.”
Lawmakers tried to pass a similar ban last year. That was shortly after state pollution regulators revealed in January 2019 that Water Gremlin, a maker of lead fishing sinkers and lead acid battery terminals, had been violating its air pollution permit for more than 15 years, pumping out tons of uncontrolled TCE into the air.
News of such long-running violations stunned local residents and led to one of Minnesota’s largest pollution penalties. Water Gremlin had to pay more than $7 million in fines and environmental projects and switch to a less toxic solvent.
The situation worsened months later when health and labor officials revealed that children of Water Gremlin workers were poisoned by lead dust being tracked home from the factory.
The state temporarily shut down the company last fall after more than a dozen children were found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood. Now health officials say as many as 20 children may have been poisoned by the take-home lead dust — three of them above the state health safety level of 15 micrograms per deciliter, which it says presents a serious health risk for children.
Water Gremlin has been working for months to clean the plant and workers’ vehicles and establish new safety measures for workers as part of a court-ordered remediation plan.