In Puerto Rico, residents wait for accountability, cleanup of toxic coal ash ‘caminos blancos’

In Puerto Rico, residents wait for accountability, cleanup of toxic coal ash ‘caminos blancos’

The nearly 14 million people of color who live in rural America face unique challenges that run the gamut — from industry land grabs to struggles with broadband and a lack of representation in business and in government that makes it near impossible for many to cultivate generational wealth. This six-part series from the Rural News Network, with support from the Walton Family Foundation, elevates the issues these communities are facing and what some are doing to change their fates.

SALINAS, Puerto Rico — After Sol Piñeiro retired from bilingual special education in New Jersey public schools, she bought a dream house in Salinas on Puerto Rico’s south coast, near the town where she was born.

She and her husband built a traditional Puerto Rican casita beside the main home and filled the sprawling yard with orchids, cacti and colorful artifacts, including a bright red vintage pickup truck.

Only after setting up her slice of paradise here did she learn the road running alongside it contained toxic waste from a nearby power plant.

Salinas is one of 14 municipalities around the island that between 2004 and 2011 used coal ash as a cheap material to construct roads and fill land. The material is a byproduct of burning coal and is known to contain a long list of toxic and radioactive chemicals. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not specifically regulate coal ash until 2015, and those regulations don’t cover the coal ash used in roads like that in Salinas.

Any community with a coal-burning power plant likely has tons of toxic coal ash stored somewhere nearby, in pits, ponds or piles. In 2015, the EPA announced new rules requiring groundwater testing and safer storage and disposal methods, but the rules exempt power companies from responsibility for ash dispersed for use in road building and other projects.

Scant or nonexistent recordkeeping makes comprehensively mapping this scattered coal ash impossible, but environmental and public health advocates suspect the material is likely contaminating groundwater and causing toxic dust across the United States.

Perhaps nowhere is the problem as prominent as on Puerto Rico’s south coast, a rural, economically struggling region far from the capital of San Juan and major tourist destinations. Here, coal ash — or “cenizas” in Spanish — has become a symbol of the environmental injustice that has long plagued the U.S. colony.

The ash originated from a coal-fired power plant owned by global energy company AES in the nearby town of Guayama. After the Dominican Republic began refusing imports of the waste, the company promoted the material to Puerto Rican municipalities and contractors as a construction fill product. In all, more than 1.5 million tons of coal ash were deposited in Salinas and Guayama, according to a 2012 letter by the company’s vice president that was obtained by the Puerto Rico-based Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, or Center for Investigative Journalism.

In July 2022, a decade after community pressure forced the company to stop marketing ash for such use, EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited Guayama and Salinas to meet with residents about coal ash and other environmental issues as part of his “Journey to Justice” tour. The tour also included the agency’s first Environmental Justice Advisory Council meeting in Puerto Rico. Piñeiro and others are glad for the attention, but given the U.S. government’s long history of broken promises and neglect in Puerto Rico, they are impatient for meaningful action.

From left, José Cora Collazo, Sol Piñeiro, and Carlos Lago on the coal ash road running along Piñeiro’s home.
From left, José Cora Collazo, Sol Piñeiro, and Carlos Lago on the coal ash road running along Piñeiro’s home. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Energy injustice

Piñeiro learned the backstory of the powdery gray road material when she connected with José Cora Collazo, who lives in a mint-green home perched on a hillside nearby, with sweeping views of the south coast. Piñeiro has since joined Cora in leading the organization Acción Social y Protección Ambiental, raising awareness about coal ash and demanding change from local and U.S. officials.

While the majority of Puerto Rico’s population lives on the north coast, including the San Juan area, the bulk of the island’s power is generated on the south coast, including at the AES coal plant as well as a nearby power plant that burns oil. That means the residents of Guayama, Salinas and other nearby communities could be subject to a myriad of public health risks, experts and activists say, while the mangrove ecosystem of Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve and area fisheries could also be threatened.

During frequent heavy rains, Piñeiro and Cora see the gray coal ash streaming down crumbling roads and into the tangled brush and creeks that traverse the hillsides. As Piñeiro’s picturesque homestead is on a slope below the road Calle Luis Llorens Torres, the coal ash runs down onto her property.

Local residents draw drinking water from their own private wells or a network of municipal wells, and they worry that coal ash is polluting the groundwater. In 2021, chemist Osvaldo Rosario spearheaded testing of tap water in area homes and found disturbing signs of contamination with toxic metals known to be in coal ash. In August, Rosario and colleagues retested the same homes and are awaiting results.

Rosario’s testing and ongoing activism by locals spurred the U.S. EPA to do its own groundwater testing this spring. EPA spokesperson Robert Daguillard previously told the Energy News Network the agency anticipated presenting the results in late September; EPA did not respond to a recent query about the status of the results.

“EPA’s focus on CCR [coal combustion residuals] in Puerto Rico follows the commitment made by Administrator Regan during his Journey to Justice visit with communities concerned with the management of CCR in Puerto Rico,” Daguillard said in response to the Energy News Network’s questions.

AES’ coal plant in Guayama.
AES’ coal plant in Guayama. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Broken promises, problematic offers

When AES built the coal plant, it promised the resulting ash would be shipped off the island. An investigation by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo revealed that in its first two years of operation, more than 100 million tons of coal ash from the plant were sent to the Dominican Republic, dumped in and around the town of Arroyo Barril and several ports. Soon residents noticed a spike in birth defects, miscarriages and other ailments, which experts attributed to the coal ash pollution.

The country barred coal ash imports. In U.S. court, AES agreed to pay $6 million to remove the coal ash. Meanwhile, AES began marketing the byproduct in Puerto Rico as a construction fill under the brand name Agremax. The ash was used in the wealthy San Juan-area town of Dorado and the university town of Mayaguez on the west coast, but use was heaviest on the south coast.

“They began dumping the ash in many areas of Puerto Rico as the base for many roads, many trails, unpaved trails of pure ash,” Rosario said. “They would fill in flood-prone areas so there could be construction. There was illegal dumping in many open areas. They literally gave the ash away; they paid for the transportation. A contractor would say, ‘I need 20 tons of coal ash to fill in this area,’ and they would bring the coal ash.”

A 2023 report by the environmental organization Earthjustice noted that the toxic ash still lies unused and uncovered at sites where it poses health risks to people in nearby homes, parks, a school and a hospital. “At numerous sites, the coal ash was left uncovered or covered only with a thin layer of dirt, which quickly eroded,” the report said. “Fugitive dust from these uncovered piles and roads is common.”

Rosario said that the use of coal ash was done “under the permissive oversight of government agencies.”

“You put a couple inches of topsoil over it, then when that topsoil gets eroded away or you dig to plant a tree, you reach this gray material which is the ash,” he said. “The water level is not far below that. This was done behind the backs of the people. They got mortgages for houses built on toxic material.”

Sol Piñeiro pictured in her yard holding a piece of produce she grew. The sprawling yard is filled with orchids, cacti and colorful artifacts, including a bright red vintage pickup truck.
Sol Piñeiro in her yard, with produce she grew. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Unencapsulated ash

In 2012, Vanderbilt University tested Agremax at the behest of the U.S. EPA. It found that the material — a mix of fly ash and bottom ash — leached high concentrations of arsenic, boron, chloride, chromium, fluoride, lithium and molybdenum.

Coal ash is commonly used as a component in concrete, and it is widely considered safe when it is encapsulated in such material.

But unencapsulated use of coal ash, while legal, is opposed by environmental groups  who fear that the dangerous heavy metals known to leach into groundwater can spread and potentially expose people to carcinogens and neurotoxins through drinking water, soil and air.

Advocates have long argued for stricter regulation of unencapsulated use of coal ash. As the Energy News Network explored in a 2022 investigation, throughout the U.S. developers can use up to 12,400 tons of unencapsulated coal ash without notifying the public.

There are about a billion tons of coal ash stored in impoundments and landfills around the U.S., and testing required under 2015 federal rules shows that almost all of it is contaminating groundwater, as Earthjustice, Environmental Integrity Project and other organizations have shown based on the companies’ own groundwater monitoring data. This summer, the EPA expanded what types of coal ash storage are subject to the rules, including ash at repositories that were closed before 2015.

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit last year demanding that the expanded rules also address ash used as structural fill in places like Salinas and Guayama.

But the agency did not mention such ash in its revision to the rules, with the draft released in May. In June, Cora traveled to Chicago to testify before the EPA. Unless they are changed, the rules leave his neighbors and others across Puerto Rico with few legal avenues to fight for accountability and remediation.

“The coal ash industry has their laboratories; they know what they are doing,” Rosario said. “I go back to the word ‘avarice’ — they know all of this, just like the tobacco industry.”

AES, which is headquartered in Arlington County, Virginia, did not respond to questions from the Energy News Network. A regional AES representative instead provided a statement saying: “For more than 20 years, AES Puerto Rico has been bringing safe, affordable, and reliable energy to the island and supplying up to 25% of the island’s energy needs. We remain committed to accelerating the responsible transition to renewable energy for the island and the people of Puerto Rico.”

A history of struggle

Cora was aware of environmental issues from childhood. His father, José Juan Cora Rosa, was a prominent activist who fought against the U.S. Navy’s bombing exercises on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, among other iconic struggles.

The elder Cora explained that in the late 1990s, local resistance halted plans to build a coal plant in Mayaguez, the town on Puerto Rico’s west coast home to a prominent technical university. The coal plant was instead opened in 2002 in Guayama, despite opposition from the elder Cora and other residents. He said the company likely knew they’d face less pushback since Guayama’s population is smaller and economically struggling.

For years now, residents of Guayama and Salinas have complained of health effects — from tumors to skin disease — that they think are caused by the coal plant. A 2016 study by the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Public Health showed a disproportionately high incidence of respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, asthma, hives and spontaneous abortions in Guayama. Other studies have found high cancer rates in the area, according to reporting by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo.

Salinas resident Victor Alvarado Guzmán has seen such health issues firsthand. His wife is a cancer survivor, and he notes that on two blocks in the Miramar community of Guayama, 18 people have had cancer, some fatal cases.

“That’s not normal,” he said.

Salinas resident and environmental activist Victor Alvarado Guzmán stands across the street from a shopping center that was built on a foundation of coal ash.
Salinas resident and environmental activist Victor Alvarado Guzmán wants to see coal ash removed from his community, where it was used to build roads and the foundation for shopping centers like this one. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Alvarado is trained as a psychologist but has been an environmental activist for a quarter-century, fighting unsuccessfully against the coal plant and successfully to block a proposed landfill and chicken processing plant from the area. He’s co-founder of the grassroots environmental group Diálogo Ambiental, and he’s run for public office.

Sitting in a restaurant in Salinas built on a foundation of coal ash, Alvarado said he wants to see historic ash removed from the community, and he wants the government to pay for soil and water testing plus blood testing for residents to see how heavy metals from coal ash may be affecting them.

Under a gazebo in Guayama on a stifling hot August afternoon, local environmental activists gathered to discuss the risk from coal ash, and the plant’s air emissions.

“Every time we have a meeting, we hear about someone else who is sick,” noted Miriam Gallardo, a teacher who used to work at a school near the plant, seeing coal ash-laden trucks go by.

Aldwin Colón, founder of community group Comunidad Guayama Unidos Por Tu Salud — Guayama Community United for Your Health — said that on his block, people in four out of the nine homes have cancer. He said he blames the coal plant and the public officials who have not done more to protect residents. He noted that Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi was previously a lobbyist representing AES.

He lamented that the company chose to build the plant in a lower-income community with little tourism.

“In poor communities, we don’t have the resources to fight back,” Colón said, in Spanish. “These are criminal companies that use corrupt politics for their own means. This is racism and classism — the same old story, the slaves sacrificed for the patron.”

Colón, Piñeiro and Cora drove around the area with other activists from Guayama to show the Energy News Network multiple sites where coal ash is visible. They pulled over along a major road, Dulces Sueños — Sweet Dreams — built in recent years. One man dug a shovel into the embankment next to the road. After turning over a few inches of soil and foliage, his shovel filled with gray powder.

An activist from Guayama digs into the embankment next to a major road as an example of a site where coal ash is visible just inches under the soil.
An activist from Guayama digs into the embankment next to a major road as an example of a site where coal ash is visible just inches under the soil. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Continuing through Salinas and Guayama, Piñeiro pointed out the strip malls and fast food stores that were built on top of coal ash, among 36 specific locations documented by the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo.

Cora and Piñeiro noted the coal ash-laden “caminos blancos” — white roads, as they are commonly known — traversing the countryside, known as hot destinations for mountain bikers.

At a small store in Guayama, older men passed the sweltering afternoon sitting on plastic chairs sipping Medalla beers. The owner of the store, Jacob Soto Lopez, recounted how he used to jog on dirt roads in the nearby town of Arroyo — until he learned the dust he was kicking up was toxic coal ash. Now he frets about how it may be contaminating the drinking water.

“We sell bottled water here, but a lot of people can’t afford it,” he said. “They should stop producing the ashes and take away what they’ve thrown on our island.”

A recent environmental protest in Salinas. Dozens of activists hold signs, written in Spanish, protesting coal ash contamination in Puerto Rico.
A recent environmental protest in Salinas. Credit: José Cora Collazo / Courtesy

A revolt

On the mainland, many Americans are unaware of the threat posed by coal ash, or even its existence, since it is often stored on coal plant sites, in roads and berms, and in quarries, ravines, or old mines. The federal rules regulating coal ash that took effect in 2015 were barely enforced until 2022, when the EPA began issuing decisions related to the rules.

But in communities on Puerto Rico’s south coast, the term “cenizas” — ashes in Spanish — is often recognized as a signifier of injustice and popular struggle.

When AES offloaded Agremax for use in construction and fill starting in 2004, it’s possible local officials and others did not understand the risks. But concerns soon grew and multiple municipalities passed ordinances banning the storage of coal ash.

In 2016, residents of Peñuelas — 40 miles west of the plant — revolted over AES’ plan to truck ash to a landfill in their community, despite a municipal ordinance banning coal ash. Hundreds of people occupied the street, blocking trucks from entering the landfill, and dozens of arrests were made over several days in November 2016. AES stopped sending ash to Peñuelas.

Manuel “Nolo” Díaz, a leader of that movement, noted that locals were ready to snap into action since they had previously worked together to oppose a plan to build a gas pipeline through the area.

“We took over the street to enforce the law,” Díaz said, in Spanish. “It’s so beautiful when people come together to defend their rights. But the fight is not over until they remove the ashes from the 14 towns, and decontaminate the water they’ve contaminated.”

In 2017, the island’s government passed a law banning the storage of coal ash on the island. Since then, AES has shipped coal ash from the island to U.S. ports including Jacksonville, Florida, for storage in landfills in Georgia and elsewhere, the Energy News Network has reported.

While coal ash is no longer permanently stored in Puerto Rico, a mound of coal ash multiple stories high is visible at AES’ site, where it is allowed to be stored temporarily before transport. And coal ash still makes up the street above Piñeiro’s home and many others, creating milky gray rivulets running down the hills and likely percolating into drinking water sources.

Vanessa Uriarte, executive director of the group Amigos del Mar, speaks surrounded by other activists at a press conference outside of Puerto Rico’s natural resources department in San Juan.
Vanessa Uriarte, executive director of the group Amigos del Mar, speaks at a press conference outside of Puerto Rico’s natural resources department in San Juan. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

A conundrum

The law against storing coal ash on the island could complicate efforts to remove it from roads and fill sites, since it would need to be transported and stored somewhere.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency allocated about $8 million for Salinas to repair roads in the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. Cora, Piñeiro and others have demanded that the money be used to remove coal ash from roads and rebuild them.

Last year, Salinas Mayor Karilyn Bonilla Colón requested an exception to the law banning the disposal of coal ash on the island, so that coal ash could be extracted from the roads in Salinas and deposited in landfills in Ponce, Humacao or Peñuelas. She told local media that exporting the ash off the island would be too expensive.

Organizations in Peñuelas and beyond opposed the move, calling it disrespectful to their communities. In January, the natural resources department denied the mayor’s request.

Piñeiro and Cora are frustrated Bonilla has not found another way to remove and dispose of the ash. On Sept. 5, activists painted on the street in Salinas with large letters calling the mayor “asesina ambiental” — an environmental assassin.

A spokesperson for Bonilla said she is no longer doing interviews about coal ash, and referred the Energy News Network to local news coverage of the controversy.

Cora and other activists are now appealing to Manuel A. Laboy Rivera, the executive director of the Central Office for Recovery, Reconstruction and Resiliency which oversees FEMA fund distribution in Puerto Rico, since he recently warned that 80 municipalities, government agencies and organizations in Puerto Rico will have to return the emergency funds if they can’t prove they’ve been used.

Cora and Piñeiro note that many of their neighbors are elderly, and don’t feel urgency around coal ash after having survived two hurricanes and a major earthquake in the past six years, not to mention the island’s ongoing economic crisis.

“But what about future generations?” Piñeiro asked.

“If the aquifer is contaminated and we don’t have potable water in Salinas, how can people live here?” added Cora, in Spanish. “What can we do?”

Cora, Piñeiro and their allies want the coal plant to close and be replaced by clean energy, and indeed Puerto Rico has passed a law calling for a transition to 100% renewable energy by 2050. But they don’t want the clean energy transition to replicate the injustices of the fossil fuel economy, and they feel plans for massive solar farms on the south coast — developed in part by AES — could do just that.

While solar farms are emissions-free, they continue the problem of reliance on a fragile centralized grid and put the island’s energy burden on the south coast.

Opponents say the proposed massive arrays of solar panels cause flooding and erosion — by compacting land and causing run-off — while also displacing agricultural land. Attorney Ruth Santiago, who has lived most of her life in Salinas, is representing environmental groups that recently filed a lawsuit against the Puerto Rico government over 18 planned solar farms, including by AES.

On Aug. 7, Alvarado led activists from island-wide environmental groups in delivering a letter to Puerto Rico’s natural resources department in San Juan, making demands around coal ash, solar farms and other issues.

“Under the theme of an energy transition that is just and clean, how are they going to deal with the deposit of toxic ashes across the country?” said Vanessa Uriarte, executive director of the group Amigxs del Mar, in Spanish, outside the department’s office. “The department needs to tell us what their plan of action is to deal with this problem. And now the same company that has contaminated our community with coal ash is taking our agricultural lands for solar panels.”

Energy justice leaders instead want decentralized small solar and microgrids that are resilient during disasters and cause minimal environmental impacts so that future generations are not left with more injustices like coal ash.

“It’s this strange situation where it’s not a problem about the lack of funding,” Santiago said, referring to federal funds allocated to Puerto Rico. “There’s more than enough funding, but it’s being used to rebuild this business-as-usual kind of electric system. This disaster recovery funding should be an opportunity to transform the electric system in a way that would really serve the public interest.”

In Puerto Rico, residents wait for accountability, cleanup of toxic coal ash ‘caminos blancos’ is an article from Energy News Network, a nonprofit news service covering the clean energy transition. If you would like to support us please make a donation.

Biden’s EPA Has Resolved Only One Civil Rights Complaint Brought Since 2021

The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent dismissals of three cases that would fix some of the problems in “Cancer Alley” underscores a difficult complaint process that works against Black communities’ best interests. They fall in line with a history of neglecting marginalized residents and failing to fully realize the legal power of the Civil Rights Act […]

The post Biden’s EPA Has Resolved Only One Civil Rights Complaint Brought Since 2021 appeared first on Capital B.

EPA posts databases of pesticide harm to people, pets and wildlife for first time in agency history

​The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency posted searchable databases of pesticide harm for the first time in agency history on Thursday.

The databases, which include reports of harm to people, pets, wildlife and the environment, include information from pesticide companies, state regulators, direct complaints to the EPA and reports to the National Pesticide Information Center and the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The EPA regulates pesticides through the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. After a pesticide is registered, manufacturers are required to report incidents of harm to the agency. The EPA is supposed to use that information in its safety assessments, though previous Investigate Midwest reporting shows the agency had no system for reviewing incidents.

“People have the right to know when accidental pesticide exposures or other incidents are reported to the agency,” said Michal Freedhoff, EPA assistant administrator for the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, in a press release. “It is particularly critical to share how pesticides may have impacted our most vulnerable populations, including children and farmworkers.”

Screenshot of the new EPA database showing pesticide harm to people, pets and wildlife. Credit: EPA website

The EPA said that it is releasing the information in alignment with its Equity Action Plan and President Joe Biden’s Executive Order 14096, Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All

“This is the most significant step the EPA has taken in years to increase transparency about pesticides’ harms,” said Nathan Donley, environmental health science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit working to protect endangered species. “Making this database publicly available will help the public hold regulators accountable for overseeing and reducing pesticides’ harms and, when necessary, revoking their use.”

The EPA is releasing only the 10 most recent years of data. The agency said in a press release that they only previously released this information via Freedom of Information Act requests and in registration reviews.

Investigate Midwest obtained the databases in 2021 and has used them in reporting on incident reports of harm to pets and people from pesticide products. At the time, the EPA’s Freedom of Information Act officers said they had never released the databases before. 

This includes stories about the popular Seresto flea and tick collar, which has been the subject of more complaints about pet harm and deaths than any other product in EPA history. The EPA recently announced additional reporting requirements on Seresto.

The agency published two data sets: a main incident data set and an aggregate data set. The main data set involves more severe incidents and contains “a description of the incident (e.g., who was involved, how it happened, and where the incident occurred).” The aggregate database includes bulk numbers of incident data.

“EPA is publishing these data sets to increase transparency to the public, but the agency does not currently have the resources to answer individual questions about its content,” the EPA said in a press release.

The agency stressed that incident reports are not reviewed for accuracy and that the existence of an incident report does not mean that the pesticide involved caused that incident.

The post EPA posts databases of pesticide harm to people, pets and wildlife for first time in agency history appeared first on Investigate Midwest.

The EPA wants to broaden a ban on a deadly chemical on store shelves

Paint strippers are displayed on a shelf in a hardware store.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Many toxic substances harm people slowly, causing serious illnesses years after repeated exposure.

But methylene chloride’s fumes are so dangerous, the chemical can kill you in a matter of minutes.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned consumer sales of paint strippers with this ingredient in 2019 after an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity into a decades-long string of methylene chloride deaths — and a sustained campaign by relatives of its victims and safety advocates to press the EPA to act.

The coalition pushed for more: Workers weren’t protected by the narrow restrictions, they said. The vast majority of deaths Public Integrity traced to methylene chloride exposure happened on the job. And paint strippers were far from the only product you could find it in.

Now the EPA is proposing to ban most uses of methylene chloride — still with some on-the-job exceptions, but far fewer.

“I’m sort of stunned, you know?” said Brian Wynne, whose 31-year-old brother, Drew, died in 2017 while removing paint from his business’ walk-in freezer. Wynne had thought the EPA’s 2019 action on paint stripper “would be as far as we possibly could get — that we ran into a brick wall of funded lobbyists and councils that are paid to keep people like us away and ensure that their bottom line is prioritized ahead of safety.”

The proposed rule would prohibit methylene chloride in all consumer products and “most industrial and commercial uses,” the agency said in its announcement last week. 

The EPA said it hopes the rule will take effect in August 2024. Federal rules must go through a set process to give the public a chance to influence the final outcome. 

The chemical, also known as dichloromethane, can be found in products on retail shelves such as aerosol degreasers and brush cleaners for paints and coatings. Adhesives and sealants sold for commercial purposes use it. Manufacturers tap it to make other chemicals.

At least 85 people have died from methylene chloride’s quick-acting harms since 1980, including workers who had safety training and protective equipment, the agency said. 

That figure comes from a 2021 study by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the University of California, San Francisco, that quantified the ongoing fatalities, building on Public Integrity’s earlier tally. The number is almost certainly an undercount because one of the ways methylene chloride kills is by triggering a heart attack, which can look to observers like death from natural causes unless someone thinks to do a toxicology test.

The chemical has also caused “severe and long-lasting health impacts” such as cancer in people whose exposure didn’t rise to immediately lethal levels, the EPA said.

“Methylene chloride’s hazards,” the agency wrote in its proposed rule, “are well established.”

So well established, in fact, that experts say the federal government should have acted long before.

Public Integrity’s 2015 investigation turned up multiple missed opportunities for intervention since the 1970s that could have saved lives. Yet more deaths occurred amid delays after the EPA first proposed a rule at the end of the Obama administration in January 2017 — the Trump administration shelved the proposal until pressured to act.

‘Protect as many people as possible’

Liz Hitchcock, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, the federal policy program of Toxic-Free Future, is among the people working for years to stop methylene chloride’s killing spree. She hailed the proposed-ban announcement as “a big day.” 

“Again, people have died using these chemicals,” she said. “People have gotten sick being nearby when people are using these chemicals, people have gotten chronic illnesses from the use of these chemicals. We want to make sure we protect as many people as possible.”

But she wasn’t happy to hear that the EPA believes the rule won’t be finalized for 15 more months. 

And Lauren Atkins, whose 31-year-old son Joshua died in 2018 while using paint stripper to refinish his BMX bike, worries about the impact of the uses that won’t be banned. Seeing those loopholes in the announcement hit her hard.

Joshua Atkins, on the left, smiles with his mother, Lauren, on the right. Joshua is wearing a blue shirt and glasses and Lauren is wearing sunglasses and a green sweater.
Joshua Atkins and his mother, Lauren, at a park in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2011. Joshua Atkins died in 2018 at 31 while refinishing his BMX bike with a product containing methylene chloride. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Atkins)

“I about jumped out of my shoes until I actually read the whole thing, and then I was pretty sad,” said Atkins, whose driving goal since her son’s death has been to get methylene chloride off the market so it can’t kill anyone else. “I lost my son, but my son lost everything.”

The chemical’s use in pharmaceutical manufacturing isn’t covered by the Toxic Substances Control Act, so that isn’t prohibited in the proposed rule, the EPA said. Workers who continue to use methylene chloride in other activities the proposal would allow, the agency said, would be covered by a new “workplace chemical protection program with strict exposure limits.” Methylene chloride kills when its fumes build up in enclosed spaces.

Some higher-volume uses would remain in those exceptions, which include “mission-critical” or “safety-critical” work by the military, NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and their contractors; use in laboratories; and companies using it as a reactant or manufacturing it for the allowed purposes, the EPA said. 

But some of those exceptions would end after 10 years.

And most uses would be prohibited. 

There would be no more methylene chloride in paint strippers beyond the federal-agency exceptions. The product was a common cause of reported deaths, frequently among workers refinishing old bathtubs in homes and apartments. 

“I lost my son, but my son lost everything.”

Lauren Atkins, whose son Joshua died in 2018 while using paint stripper on his bike

And methylene chloride would no longer be allowed in commercial and industrial vapor degreasing, adhesive removal, finishing products for textiles, liquid lubricants, hobby glue and a long list of other applications. 

“Currently, an estimated 845,000 individuals are exposed to methylene chloride in the workplace,” the EPA said in a statement. “Under EPA’s proposal, less than 10,000 workers, protected from unreasonable risk via a required workplace chemical protection program, are expected to continue to use methylene chloride.”

Dr. Robert Harrison, a clinical professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, has focused on methylene chloride for roughly a decade. He said the EPA is walking a line with the proposal, trying to balance safety with economic and national-security considerations, and he finds the extent of the ban heartening.

“I think that this is a win. It’s a win for workers,” said Harrison, who worked on the 2021 study about fatalities caused by the chemical. “This sets a really great precedent for making decisions based on clear-cut science and establishing the principle … that we should move away from these toxic chemicals to safer substitutes where the harm clearly outweighs the benefits.”

62,000 chemicals

You might think a chemical can’t be sold on the market unless it’s deemed safe. But that’s not how the U.S. system works.

Concerns about chemical safety prompted Congress to pass the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, setting some requirements for chemicals. But those were widely seen as weak, giving the EPA no authority to broadly assess safety. A federal inventory published in 1982 counted roughly 62,000 chemicals, a number that’s continued to grow

In 2016, Congress amended TSCA and mandated chemical risk evaluations by the EPA. Methylene chloride was the very first that the agency tackled.

“This is what we worked so hard to reform TSCA to do,” said Hitchcock, who shared the Public Integrity investigation with congressional offices during that period as a potent example of deadly inaction.

The next step for the proposed methylene chloride ban is a 60-day public comment period. People will be able to weigh in on the EPA’s docket — and safety advocates are organizing around that.

“This is a big step forward for public health, but it’s not without its flaws,” Hitchcock said. She’s hoping to see comments that “urge EPA to enact the strongest rule possible.”

Harrison used to say that chemical regulation in the U.S. moved at a glacial speed — until glaciers started outpacing it. But he does see improvement since the 2016 TSCA amendments. The new regulatory action on methylene chloride makes him hopeful.

“There are many other chemicals that can follow the decision that the USA has made about methylene chloride,” he said.

The post The EPA wants to broaden a ban on a deadly chemical on store shelves appeared first on Center for Public Integrity.