MPCA responds to new TCE ban in Minnesota

Caroline Frischmon (writer)

In May 2020, Minnesota became the first state to ban the industrial solvent trichloroethylene (TCE). The chemical is a known carcinogen and can negatively affect liver and kidney function, the immune and central nervous systems, and reproductive health. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has regulated TCE for many years, but the recent ban will change its strategy to more stringent restrictions.

White Bear Township residents organized for the ban after the MPCA cited Water Gremlin, a local company, for their TCE emissions. “We found through our inspection and enforcement process that Water Gremlin had been emitting TCE at concentrations well above what was allowed,” explains Ralph Pribble, the MPCA’s Air Quality Information Officer. The emissions exposed White Bear residents to levels of TCE above the Minnesota Department of Health’s recommended benchmark for over 15 years. The company was also penalized for mismanagement of hazardous waste and on-site soil and groundwater contamination. 

Water Gremlin used TCE in its manufacturing process to degrease metal parts, but they replaced it with a less harmful alternative, called trans-dichloroethylene, after the citation. The new ban will require most other companies to switch to an alternative by 2022 or 2023, depending on the size of the company. The MPCA will stop issuing new permits and will require companies that used it in the last five years to sign an agreement prohibiting its use. Some will be exempt if they can demonstrate there is no other alternative. “We don’t expect large numbers of facilities to take advantage of these exemptions,” clarifies Maggie Wenger, a Senior Policy Planner with the MPCA. “Many of the companies have moved quickly,” she adds.

This isn’t the first time TCE fell out of favor because of its health risks. In the 1960s, some manufacturers replaced it with trichloroethane as a safer alternative for humans. However, trichloroethane was phased out in the 1990s because of its ozone depleting qualities, and TCE returned in its place.

The MPCA is always adapting its rules and regulations to best protect the environment, human health, and economic growth in Minnesota. The new TCE ban encourages safer alternatives that the MPCA will soon enforce. “The way we regulate is based on the best available science,” assures Pribble, “The more we find out, the more our regulations will change and adapt.”

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