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Bill to Curb Toxic Chemical in Drinking Water Awaits Decision by Christie

Classified by EPA as likely carcinogen, TCP levels remain unregulated in Garden State

water dripping faucet

The latest attempt to regulate a potentially carcinogenic chemical in New Jersey’s drinking water is now in the hands of Gov. Chris Christie after getting final legislative approval on Monday, and six years after officials rejected a similar recommendation by scientists.

The Senate voted 31-7 to approve a bill that would create a maximum contaminant limit (MCL) for 1,2,3 trichloropropane (TCP), a chemical used in pesticides, degreasers and varnish removers, and which has been classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a likely carcinogen.

Although the Department of Environmental Protection set a “guidance” level for safe consumption of the chemical in 1999, it has never been given a 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.

The bill, which was approved by the Assembly earlier this month, would direct the Drinking Water Quality Institute -- a panel of academic scientists, state officials and water company executives who advise the DEP – to set a health limit for the concentration of the chemical in drinking water within 90 days. The DEP would implement that recommendation within 180 days of receiving it.

Citing DEP research, the bill calls TCP “a potent genotoxic carcinogen which occurs in drinking water at levels resulting in significant cancer risk based on test results from New Jersey public and non-public water supplies.”

In 2009, the DWQI recommended an MCL of 0.03 parts per billion but the measure was never adopted by the DEP.

Although the current bill does not specify a level, its supporters hope the DWQI will follow its previous recommendation if the bill becomes law.

But it’s not certain that Christie will sign it, said Doug O’Malley, director of the nonprofit group Environment New Jersey. He said the administration “deep-sixed” the measure when it came out of the DWQI in 2009.

O’Malley said the recommendation was quashed by Christie’s Executive Order 2, a wide-ranging document designed to cut bureaucratic restrictions on business, issued in January 2010. Although the order did not specifically mention the DWQI, it “gave cover” to the DEP to ignore the panel’s proposal, O’Malley said.

Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie, declined to say whether the governor would sign the bill. “As a general rule, we do not discuss or comment on pending legislation until a finalized bill reaches the Governor’s Office, and we have had time to conduct a review,” he said.

With the new legislation, supporters hope there’s now a better chance of the state deciding to regulate the chemical, which was found in two now-shuttered wells in Moorestown, in the 7th District represented by Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), one of the bill’s sponsors.

“This legislation has to be passed because the administration has blatantly ignored the previous recommendations from the Drinking Water Quality Institute,” O’Malley said. “The governor, if he’s looking at the science, should sign this in a heartbeat.”

O’Malley argued that the bill addresses a known contaminant that has leaked into drinking water wells, and which can be controlled with relatively low-cost carbon filtration. “The cost-benefit analysis of protecting our drinking water is a pretty strong one,” he said.

Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D-Essex), another one of the bill’s sponsors, said: “It’s unfortunate that we have to legislate common-sense laws such as this to protect our drinking water, but this is a step forward.”

Keith Cooper, a Rutgers University toxicologist who chairs the DWQI, said it would be premature to speculate on what the panel might recommend if the bill becomes law.

Executives at New Jersey American Water, the state’s largest investor-owned water utility, and Middlesex Water Company, another investor-owned company, could not be reached for comment.

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