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How Environmentalists Lost the Battle Over TCE

First of two parts

March 29, 2006|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

When the EPA issued its first health risk assessment in 1976, it ran four pages and it was based in large part on studies that counted "bumps and lumps" on animals subjected to possible carcinogens. By contrast, EPA scientists now must show not only that a substance causes tumors, but the internal biological processes that are responsible. And the work is subject to greater scrutiny.

"It is true that there is more interagency review now of our work," Preuss said. "We have a couple steps where we send our assessments to the White House and they distribute them to other agencies. Each year, additional steps are taken."

All of the EPA's travails -- the toughened scientific demands, the loss of authority, the interagency battles -- have clearly taken a heavy toll and diminished the agency's stature.

"Inside the Beltway, it is an accepted fact that the science of EPA is not good," said Gilman, now director of the Oak Ridge Center for Advanced Studies in Tennessee, which conducts broad research on energy, the environment and other areas of science. Gilman said an entire consulting industry has sprung up in Washington to attack the EPA and sow seeds of doubt about its capabilities.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 31, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Risks of solvent: Due to an editing error, an article in Wednesday's Section A about the regulation and dangers of the industrial solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, quoted Alex A. Beehler, the Pentagon's top environmental official, as saying: "We are all forgetting the facts on the table. Meanwhile, we have done everything we can to curtail use of TCE." Beehler actually said, "We are all for getting the facts on the table."

The delays in assessing TCE have also left many contaminated communities with few answers.

"My constituents who live at a recently named Superfund site ... are forced to live everyday with contaminated groundwater, soil and air and can't afford to wait the years it would take for the results of your outsourced re-review," Rep. Sue W. Kelly (R-N.Y.) told EPA officials at a hearing last year.

"I have talked to a lot of sick people," said Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.), whose district includes hundreds of homes contaminated by TCE vapors, traced to an IBM Corp. factory. IBM has paid for air filtration systems for 400 homes, but has balked at more funding based on uncertainty over the health risk. "These people are deeply frustrated and increasingly angry," Hinchey said.

Meanwhile, many environmentalists are discouraged by what they view as a virtual emasculation of the EPA in this battle.

"The general public has no idea this is happening," said Erik Olson, a lawyer at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The Defense Department has succeeded in undermining the basic scientific process at EPA. The DoD is the biggest polluter in the United States and they have made major investments to undercut the EPA."



The military and TCE

About 1,400 Defense Department sites across the nation are contaminated with trichloroethylene, or TCE, including military bases and depots. The map shows sites that have some of the heaviest contamination or were studied for possibly causing health hazards. A sampling of problems nationwide:

Contaminated sites

McClellan Air Force Base, Sacramento:

The Pentagon is cleaning up 12 different TCE plumes affecting about 25% of the former base's property. About a half dozen public water wells have been shut and the cleanup is expected to continue for decades.


F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Cheyenne, Wyo.:

TCE was discovered at 13 decommissioned Atlas missile silos in Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. Contamination at some of the sites reached 3,500 parts per billion. TCE polluted an aquifer that Cheyenne, Wyo., planned to use as a municipal water source.


Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant, Arden Hills, Minn.:

A TCE plume covered 25 square miles and spread to private residential wells. The water supply for a nearby trailer park contained 720 parts per billion TCE. The site is now undergoing a cleanup under Superfund program supervision.


Stratford Army Engine Plant, Stratford, Conn.:

Elevated TCE vapors were discovered in several buildings the Army planned to lease to private concerns. Federal health authorities judged the vapors too high for general public exposure. A cleanup is underway.


El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Irvine, Calif.:

TCE contaminated the groundwater under the base, now closed, which long ago complicated plans to reuse the property for private housing and a public park. The government will retain about 900 contaminated acres to continue cleanup for the indefinite future.


Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio:

TCE use at the shuttered aircraft repair depot contaminated a shallow aquifer that has migrated about 4 miles off the base, through a low-income neighborhood. Health authorities have found elevated rates of cancer and birth defects in the neighborhood.


Anniston Army Depot, Anniston, Ala.:

Extremely high concentrations of TCE, up to 200,000 parts per billion, were found by government investigators in groundwater under the depot, which included a number of dumps, a plating plant and other industrial activities. TCE levels above allowable drinking water standards have been found at springs and wells on the base.


Camp Lejeune, N.C.:

Tens of thousands of Marine families were exposed to TCE in the base's drinking water supply. A preliminary study has found elevated rates of leukemia among children conceived at the base. The TCE was discovered in 1980 but not disclosed until 1985.


Sources: Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Resources News Service, Associated Press, California Department of Toxic Substances Control. Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken, Ralph Vartabedian

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