EPA Corrects Cleanup Standard for Industrial Solvent
Agency Mistakenly Relaxed 1,4 Dioxane Standard by More Than 50-Fold
Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today admitted that it had published the incorrect cleanup standard for a toxic chemical, after being alerted to the error by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Although EPA is notifying state agencies today about the mix-up which dramatically relaxed the cleanup standard for 1,4-dioxane, it will not publish a corrected number until March.
Last year, when issuing its 2011 Edition of the Drinking Water Standards and Health Advisories, EPA published a lifetime exposure level for 1,4-dioxane as its cleanup standard. This lifetime exposure level is more than fifty times larger than the carcinogenic number that was supposed to be published as the appropriate cleanup standard. The agency did not notice the error until PEER submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in late October to find out the basis for the discrepancy.
In a late December telephone call, an EPA official admitted to PEER that it had no explanation for the change because it was a mistake. Today’s letter from the EPA Mid-Atlantic Regional Office to the state agencies within that region is the first official confirmation of the error.
The chemical 1,4-dioxane is an industrial solvent which EPA classifies as a likely human carcinogen; several deaths have resulted from worker exposure to it. Dioxane is widely used as a stabilizer, mainly for aluminum containers, and in inks and adhesives, among other uses.
“While we are glad that the EPA admitted its screw-up, we are confused why it will take several months to correct it,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a lawyer and biologist who worked at EPA for more than a decade. “We are also disturbed that EPA has yet to assess the public health impact of this episode.”
PEER has asked EPA to identify the number of cleanups affected by the dioxane mix-up. Most toxic cleanups are overseen at the state level but many states adopt federal cleanup standards. Thus, any EPA error is copied forward nationally through state regulatory systems. The agency has not offered an estimate of the number of sites completed using un-protective standards.
PEER is also asking the EPA to do an audit of its drinking water standards and health advisories to ensure there are not any other mistakes.
“We have been told that this official oops originated with unknown persons at EPA Headquarters,” added PEER Counsel Kathryn Douglass, who filed the FOIA request. “We do not know whether these errors are rife or rare but, given their significance, it would behoove EPA to take a second look at all of its cleanup standards.”