After the revelation last year that White Bear Township manufacturer Water Gremlin pumped tons of a carcinogen into the air for more than a decade, Minnesota pollution regulators have tried to determine who emits the dangerous pollutant and how much.
The troubling reality underlying the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s new legislative update on trichloroethylene, called TCE, is that the MPCA still doesn’t know the scope of the problem.
Not all TCE emitters have applied for pollution permits, and most air pollution permits don’t contain specific TCE-related limitations, the update said. Instead the state lumps together volatile organic compounds, of which TCE is one.
The brief report contains the first public findings since the state Legislature gave the MPCA $700,000 last spring for a two-year project to assess statewide TCE use after the Water Gremlin pollution scandal.
TCE remains in wide use in the United States as a degreaser — it’s in consumer products such as paint removers — although it is classified as a human carcinogen and can cause birth defects. It has largely been banned in the European Union.
MPCA Assistant Commissioner Craig McDonnell said less toxic alternatives exist.
“We want to get it out of the system,” McDonnell said in an interview.
Limits far surpassed
The report, released Thursday, shows the MPCA assessed 86 permitted facilities that use or generate the toxic chemical. Running air models using 2017 data, they showed that eight were likely emitting TCE far above the state’s short-term health risk benchmark of 2 micrograms per cubic meter. Amounts ranged from twice the limit to as much as 60 and even 95 times the limit in the case of Honeywell Aerospace in Minneapolis.
Together the group of eight emitted nearly 40 tons of TCE in 2017 — about 40% of the state total.
Like Honeywell Aerospace, the others are in the Twin Cities: Viking Drill & Tool, Greatbatch Medical, Larsen’s Manufacturing, Cooperative Plating, Lake Region Medical, Kangas Enameling and Nico Products.
One, Greatbatch Medical in Minneapolis, has signed a compliance agreement with the MPCA requiring the company to reduce TCE, officials said in an interview.
Half of the eight have stopped using TCE, according to the report. The others have significantly cut back and are seeking alternatives.
Most of the data on TCE emissions comes from a national emissions inventory the state conducts every three years. In it, permitted facilities voluntarily report their emissions of volatile organic compounds, including TCE. That was last done in 2017.
MPCA staff have continued to discover more TCE users as they survey and monitor facilities for the project. The list of emitters, permitted and unpermitted, now totals about 120 facilities. It includes industrial users, power generators, landfills and even wastewater treatment facilities.
“As we look at these communities we’re discovering other facilities,” said Jeff Smith, director of MPCA’s industrial division. “We expect more will come on as we continue our investigation.”
By this summer the MPCA will have an outreach plan in place for working with the affected communities, the update said. It will also have more data and take enforcement action against those violating the TCE health risk standard.
Case in point: Water Gremlin
Water Gremlin, once the largest emitter of TCE in the state, was ordered to stop using it last year as part of a $7 million legal settlement with the state over the pollution.
The project has prompted the agency to rethink how it permits for TCE.
“We’re looking at ways to specifically call out TCE,” the MPCA’s Smith said. “It doesn’t mean existing permits are bad.”
Leigh Thiel, a member of the White Bear Area Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group that formed in response to Water Gremlin, said she’s happy the changes are being made but they should have come sooner.
“It is too late for our community that has been exposed to 17-plus years of excessive TCE air emissions, and it’s too late for other communities in the metro area who are dealing with illnesses likely caused by TCE pollution,” Thiel said.
Thiel and other members said they’re concerned that the TCE alternatives may pose health risks of their own. But she’s eager to see TCE banned, she said.
Rep. Ami Wazlawik, DFL-White Bear Township, said she will reintroduce legislation this year to ban the chemical. The ban passed in the House last year, but not in the Senate. Wazlawik said she expects greater support this time around.
“There’s been a lot of conversation around not just Water Gremlin but TCE in general,” Wazlawik said. “Before Water Gremlin, I don’t think a lot of people knew about it.”