Minnesota has become the first state in the nation to ban the use of toxic TCE (trichloroethylene), through legislation passed in May 2020. This is a huge victory for the citizens of White Bear Township, who fought to ban the chemical after they learned their community had been exposed to it for years.
TCE has long been one of the most dangerous and widespread pollutants of air and water in Minnesota. Dozens of sites across the state have groundwater polluted by TCE, including cities like Fridley, New Brighton, Minneapolis, and St. Louis Park. TCE causes cancer at low levels of exposure. In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began the process to ban most uses of TCE, and proposed a rule to do so on the last day of the Obama administration. Under the Trump administration, rulemaking to ban TCE was dropped.
In January 2019, news broke that the community of White Bear Township had been exposed to fifteen years of dangerous levels of air pollution from the Water Gremlin factory. Water Gremlin used TCE, a solvent used for degreasing, to clean lead battery terminals and lead fishing tackle. An investigation by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that pollution control equipment had failed and was not fixed for many years. This released tons of TCE into the air at dangerous levels, but because TCE is odorless and colorless, nobody in the community knew. White Bear Township was just one community that had TCE contaminated air. MCEA’s analysis found that other large TCE emitters were concentrated in communities with high levels of poverty, making this pollution an environmental justice issue.
While Water Gremlin paid over $7 million dollars in penalties, one of the largest settlements ever paid to the MPCA, nearby residents resolved that this should never happen to another community again. They pushed for legislation to end the use of TCE and require safer alternatives. In 2019, the Minnesota Legislature passed a budget that included funding to identify large emitters of TCE and encourage them to use safer alternatives. Then in May 2020, the Minnesota Legislature banned TCE and required that it be replaced with safer alternatives by 2022. Throughout these legislative actions, MCEA worked with partners including Conservation Minnesota and the White Bear Area Concerned Citizens Group to push for the ban, including testifying on the bills and educating legislators about the risks of TCE.
Key Timeline Events
Minnesota Legislature passes “White Bear Area Concerned Citizens Group TCE Ban Act”
Wide bipartisan majorities pass the TCE ban, which is named for the group that pushed for legislative action to prevent future pollution events. Rep. Ami Wazlawik (DFL - White Bear Township) and Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R - Lino Lakes), who represent the community affected by Water Gremlin, are the bipartisan co-sponsors of the legislation. It’s signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz.
MPCA research finds eight TCE users exceeding health based standards
Research funded by the Minnesota Legislature finds that eight large users of TCE released over 40 tons of the chemical into the air in 2017 alone, and that they exceeded health standards in doing so. In addition, the MPCA reveals that many TCE users have begun to voluntarily transition to safer alternatives after being contacted.
Legislature passes budget line to encourage TCE users to transition to alternatives
While the House and Senate are unable to agree on language to ban TCE, money is included in the Pollution Control Agency’s budget to identify large TCE users and to educate them about safer alternatives.
Water Gremlin air pollution revealed to the public, Water Gremlin agrees to end TCE use
After revealing that TCE air pollution occurred for over 15 years and paying one of the largest monetary settlements for pollution in Minnesota history, Water Gremlin agrees to end the use of TCE at their White Bear Lake factory.
Federal rule to end use of TCE for degreasing proposed on last day of Obama presidency
After concluding that TCE presents a danger to employees and the public, the US EPA proposes a rule under the Toxic Substances Control Act to ban the use of TCE for vapor degreasing. After the change in administration, the rulemaking is shelved and a new risk assessment of TCE is ordered by the EPA.