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Bill Would Require DEP to Set Limit for Toxic Chemical in Drinking Water

Drinking Water Quality Institute made recommendations for TCP, other chemicals in 2009 but DEP didn't act on them

herb conaway
Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee Chairman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington).

New Jersey lawmakers are making a new effort to control the presence of a toxic chemical in drinking water six years after the Department of Environmental Protection failed to act on a recommendation from a scientific panel that the chemical should be regulated.

A bill that would call on the DEP to establish a maximum contaminant limit, or MCL, for 1,2,3 Trichloropropane (TCP) -- which has been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a likely carcinogen -- was released by the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee on March 19 and now heads for a vote in the full Assembly.

The measure, A-3954, would direct the Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel that advises the DEP, to recommend an MCL for the chemical’s presence in drinking water.

In 2009, the panel advised the DEP to set a limit of 0.03 parts per billion for TCP, and at the same time proposed new or amended limits on 12 other chemicals, but the department did not act on any of the recommendations.

An earlier version of the bill directed the DWQI to renew the specific level of its earlier recommendation, but the language was changed to allow the panel to make its own determination.

“The amendment gives a little bit more latitude to the Drinking Water Quality Institute,” said Jonathan Chebra, chief of staff for the bill’s cosponsor, Assemblyman Herb Conaway of the 7th District. “It still says they have to study it and come up with an MCL. It probably is a bit cleaner legislatively to say ‘come up with a recommendation based on your best judgment.’

Although the bill no longer specifies a level, the DWQI would likely follow its previous recommendation if the bill became law, Chebra said.

“We have a pretty good understanding that, should they be asked to do this, they will probably fall pretty well in line with what they put out previously,” he said.

The bill, also sponsored by Assemblyman Troy Singleton of the 7th District and Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer of the 29th District, calls the chemical a “potent genotoxic carcinogen” that presents a “significant cancer risk” by occurring in drinking water.

TCP, a manmade substance used in pesticides, degreasers, and varnish removers, was found in two now-shuttered wells in Moorestown, within Conaway and Singleton’s Burlington County district.

Although the DEP in 1999 set a “guidance” level for safe consumption of the chemical, it has never been given an MCL, which would allow it to be regulated by the state. No MCL for TCP exists at the federal level, but California has classified it has a human carcinogen.

DEP spokesman Larry Hajna did not directly answer a question on why the department did not accept the DWQI’s 2009 recommendation but noted that TCP is being investigated by the EPA.

New Jersey does not have to wait for any federal action before establishing its own MCL, Hajna said. He noted that the proposed 0.03 ppb limit is stricter than the highest level of 0.09 ppb found at Moorestown.

Bill Wolfe, a former DEP official who now campaigns with the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility to keep state environmental policy separate from politics, said the department “recklessly ignored” DWQI’s recommendations on TCP and the other chemicals.

He called on Conaway and other lawmakers to amend the bill again so that it includes all of the chemicals cited in the 2009 recommendation, plus two others cited by the panel earlier.

Neither Conaway nor Spencer returned calls seeking comment.

Wolfe argued that a bill that included all the chemicals could be implemented quickly because the science has been done. “The recommendations have already been made, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said.

As it stands, the bill has been “gutted” by the removal of the specific contaminant limit, he said.

Given the long-term health effects that TCP could have, there’s no immediate evidence that it has damaged the health of Moorestown residents, and so any new regulation would be a forward-looking measure, Wolfe said.

But Michael Babcock, a Moorestown resident who has been pushing for the chemical to be regulated, said he wonders whether some developmental problems observed in his two-and-a-half year-old daughter could be linked to the contamination.

“My wife is pregnant, she’s drinking this water, what does that do to a one-cell fetus?” said Babcock, 44, a restaurant owner.

Even if there is no link between water contamination and his daughter’s health, Babcock said he and other townspeople should have been fully informed by state and local authorities about the condition of public water so they could make their own decision on whether to continue using it.

“I don’t like that anyone would take the decision making out of my hands or townspeople’s hands and not let us know what the hell’s in our water, and give us the choice of whether we want to drink it or not,” he said. “If we are drinking it, cooking with it, and giving it our kids, we should have that option and they didn’t give us that option.”

If approved, the current bill would give the DWQI 90 days from passage to recommend that the DEP adopt a standard for TCP, and the department would put the measure into effect within 180 days.

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