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Why Boring Bills & Regs Matter
Learn More About Water Regulations In California & How A New Bill In Tennessee Could Impact Us All
As I mentioned last week, the California Water Board has come back with a new draft of regulations for hexavalent chromium (also known as chromium-6), proposing a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 10 parts per billion (ppb).
This number is 500 times higher than the public health goal of 0.02 ppb set by the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) in 2011.
Feels like a miss, right?!
“We applaud the state for finally moving forward with regulation of chromium-6 in water, but this MCL is still not sufficiently protective of Californians’ health,” said Bill Allayaud, California director of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group in a statement. “We urge the state to do better and take immediate steps to adopt a level that more closely reflects the state’s public health goal.”
ICYMI, this substance is often referred to as the “Erin Brockovich chemical,” but I assure you it was here long before me. I may have helped expose its dangers, but the real story is how this chemical came to be in every town across the country and how it has polluted our drinking water.
A 2016 analysis of federal data from drinking water tests throughout the country shows that hexavalent chromium contaminates water supplies for more than 200 million Americans in all 50 states. But federal regulations only monitor general chromium in water, which includes the two most common forms: chromium-3, a naturally occurring metallic element, and chromium-6, the toxic version used by industry to make everything from motor vehicle bumpers to anticorrosion products and more. We don’t differentiate between the two at the federal level and that’s a big problem.
California became the first state in the nation to regulate this substance in July 2014, establishing an MCL for chromium-6 in drinking water at 10 ppb. For reference, the rest of the country uses a federal standard of 100 ppb for total chromium, including other types like chromium-3, which is nontoxic. Those federal standards were created at a time when hexavalent chromium was not linked to cancer, but subsequent studies have shown a direct correlation.
One piece of research that helped set the standards in California came from the National Institutes of Health. Studies conducted by the National Toxicology Program found that:
sodium dichromate dihydrate, a compound containing hexavalent chromium, causes cancer in laboratory animals following oral ingestion. Researchers found significant increases in tumors at sites where tumors are rarely seen in laboratory animals. Male and female rats had malignant tumors in the oral cavity. The studies conducted in mice found increases in the number of benign and malignant tumors in the small intestine, which increased with dose in both males and females.
In September 2017, California dropped its MCL. The Superior Court of Sacramento County invalidated the standard, saying that “the state failed to properly consider the economic feasibility of complying with the MCL.” The Safe Drinking Water Act does require the state to determine that the cost of treatment offsets the public health benefits. In this case, the court did not rule on whether the MCL was economically feasible or that it adequately protected public health, it simply found that the department did not adequately document whether the MCL was cost-effective.
The challenge came not from scientists or a consumer advocacy group but from the Solano County Taxpayers Association and the California Manufacturers & Technology Association, a trade group whose mission is to improve and enhance a strong business climate for California’s 30,000 manufacturing, processing, and technology-based companies. The city of Vacaville, California, estimated that the standard would cost about $7.5 million.
“As if the current challenges we’re facing with the water supply in California aren’t bad enough, along comes this unnecessary regulation, which will place steep cost burdens on taxpayers without a benefit to public health,” Ourania Riddle of the taxpayers’ association said in 2016.
So here we are in 2022. The only state looking to regulate hexavalent chromium is California, and the MCL is much lower than the federal standard but much higher than the public health goal.
Frankly, no level is safe in my opinion.
Hexavalent chromium is a carcinogen and a reproductive toxicant for both males and females. It can lead to eye and respiratory irritation, asthma, anemia, acute gastroenteritis, vertigo, gastrointestinal hemorrhage, convulsions, ulcers, and damage or failure of the liver and kidneys.
I find this new proposal from the State Water Board disgraceful and not adequate to protect the people of California. It’s nothing more than regulatory lip service.
It has taken too many years since this challenge for the State Board to come to the same conclusion as it had years before, despite advances in treatment technology and historic levels of funding for drinking water solutions, and all while communities have faced the risk of unsafe drinking water.
Meanwhile in Tennessee…
You know I’ve been saying for years that one of the best ways to become active in your community is to start paying attention to local politics. Attend a city council meeting. Vote for local candidates who talk about protecting the environment. These small actions can truly make a difference.
Case in point: a new controversial energy infrastructure bill was introduced in the Tennessee General Assembly earlier this month aiming to give power to the state to override local laws blocking fossil-fuel projects in their communities. If the bill became law, the state could allow an oil company to run a pipeline through a city over the objections of the city itself.
Feels like a similar playbook to how we regulate hydraulic fracturing, known to most of us as fracking.
Millions of Americans live within one mile of a fracking well and studies have found that the toxic chemicals from fracking, natural gas processing sites, and storage facilities are present in high concentrations in the bodies of people living or working near these sites.
Fracking has helped increase U.S. production of oil and natural gas, which was supposed to lead to lower energy prices. But are those savings worth it and who is benefitting now from higher prices at the pump?
I’m not against the practice itself. The right regulations exist to extract safely, but they are not being enforced. Fracking is exempt or excluded from many major federal environmental laws put in place to protect us and the environment.
Most fracking decisions are made at the state or federal level, even though local communities see the biggest impact from this practice. The Ohio Supreme Court overruled local drilling regulations. The Colorado Supreme Court also overturned voter-approved fracking bans in several Colorado cities. And those are just a few examples.
Despite the dangers, the oil and gas industries have used their deep pockets and close government allies to aggressively push back against local communities that don’t want fracking in their neighborhoods.
In Tennessee this new bill is seen by many community members as backlash toward Memphis after community protesters fought and won against the building of a crude-oil pipeline through low-income and historically Black neighborhoods in South Memphis.
The Memphis City Council has since passed regulations to protect the city’s underground drinking water and prevent pipelines from being built near residential areas.
But this new bill should give pause to everyone—not just residents in Tennessee. It looks “to strip local communities and legislators of any say or decision-making power when it comes to where oil and gas pipelines, storage tanks, or other infrastructure are placed,” according to a blog from The Climate Reality Project. “The bill makes no requirement for companies to be associated with local utilities or grid operators. Or to be based in the state or even in the U.S., potentially turning the health of Tennessee families over to out-of-state businesses with no connection or real interest in the people who call it home.”
We all need to be aware and keep a look out for more bills like this one across the country.
To get more involved, check out the great work of Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP), formerly Memphis Community Against the Pipeline.
Whose ready to pay more attention to the boring rules and regs? They impact so many communities, and the time to get involved is now. Are you in? Let me know in the comments below.