California took its first step Tuesday toward addressing a dangerous, cancer-causing chemical that 1 million residents across the state could be drinking in harmful amounts.
The State Water Resources Control Board voted unanimously to implement a maximum contaminant level in drinking water for a chemical known as 1,2,3-TCP, used primarily as a degreasing solvent and pesticide ingredient.
A May NBC Bay Area investigation found the chemical is currently found at dangerous levels in the drinking water served by 94 different California public water systems, mostly in the farming communities of the Central Valley. Those numbers don’t take into account the nearly 2 million Californians, mostly in rural areas, who get their water from private wells. Experts say many of those wells are also assuredly plagued by 1,2,3-TCP.
Although the chemical was removed from pesticides marketed by Shell and Dow Chemical in the 1980s, its use was so prevalent that it seeped into groundwater where it remains today in levels state scientists say would increase cancer risks after a lifetime of exposure.
California now becomes the second state in the country, after Hawaii, to regulate the chemical in drinking water.
“It’s a very serious challenge, this particular chemical,” California Water Resources Control Board Vice Chair Steven Moore said at Tuesday’s hearing. “As folks have said, it’s a very serious public health threat. California officially determined this is a carcinogen. It’s still under discussion at the federal level. And when you look at the science and the experiments and all that was done to show it, it is disquieting how serious and insidious this chemical is.”
Tuesday’s decision means drinking water providers across the state will be required to begin testing for 1,2,3-TCP by January. If testing shows greater average concentrations than five parts per trillion over one year of testing, the provider would be in violation of the new drinking water standard. The water provider would then be required to notify its customers about the violation and take corrective action, according to a spokesperson for the Water Resources Control Board.
At Tuesday’s hearing, State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus vowed to hold stakeholders accountable moving forward.
“I think we have a group commitment from many people to try and work together and move forward,” Marcus said. “And I will hold folks to that, including ourselves.”
The vote is welcome news to advocacy groups across the state, many of which have been lobbying state water officials to regulate the chemical for years.
“The State of California has known about the dangers of 1,2,3-TCP for decades,” Community Water Center Policy Director Jonathan Nelson said. “The time has come and is indeed long overdue to pass the action proposed today.”
Small water providers across the state have taken Shell and Dow Chemical to court in efforts to recoup cleanup costs associated with 1,2,3-TCP contamination. San Francisco attorney Todd Robbins represents the majority of the 43 small water systems who have sued the chemical giants for damages. Eight of the lawsuits have settled out of court and 33 remain pending.
“I think that it’s a pretty dirty little secret that a state as prosperous as California has so many water quality problems,” Robbins told NBC Bay Area in May.
Under the new regulations, water providers that remain out of compliance could face enforcement actions by the state, but they would still be allowed to deliver contaminated drinking water to their customers.
According to the advocacy organization Environmental Working Group, California is not the only state with troubling amounts of TCP in drinking water. The group collected water data from water utilities across the country and found the chemical in at least 17 different states.