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N.H. Considers Stricter Regulation on Rennie Farm Chemical

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/22/2017 12:00:19 AM
Modified: 4/22/2017 12:01:56 AM

West Lebanon — New Hampshire water quality regulators are working to toughen their standards toward 1,4-dioxane, the chemical found in the area around Rennie Farm, Dartmouth College’s former Hanover dump site for lab animals.

The focus in Concord on dioxane, which has presented problems elsewhere in New Hampshire, also comes amid a national push for more stringent regulation of the substance, a synthetic industrial chemical which is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a “likely human carcinogen.”

Michael Wimsatt, director of the Waste Management Division of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, said on Thursday his office is considering strengthening the state standard for ambient water quality for 1,4-dioxane.

The regulatory threshold in New Hampshire stands at 3 parts per billion, Wimsatt said, and his office is thinking of lowering it to 0.35 parts per billion, in line with changing standards from the EPA.

“This is something we’ve been looking at for some time and trying to figure out where we need to be,” Wimsatt said in an interview, adding that concerns about the implementation of the rule had caused some delays.

The EPA in recent years lowered its recommended water safety threshold for 1,4-dioxane, which appears in many household and commercial products, Wimsatt said.

Despite that recommendation, the federal agency has not established a hard limit for the amount of 1,4-dioxane allowed in groundwater — something that two U.S. senators are hoping to change.

Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, both Democrats from New York, have introduced federal legislation to set limits on dioxane’s groundwater presence and ban it from household products.

Dioxane has appeared on Long Island, N.Y., among numerous other places around the country, and has inspired a nationwide push to impose stricter regulations.

“The fact that 1,4-dioxane, a potentially dangerous chemical, is hiding out in everyday products expected to make us clean is very disturbing, and to make matters worse, likely carcinogens like this one can be even more harmful to kids,” Schumer said in a statement last week.

Wimsatt applauded that proposal in Thursday’s interview.

“We would certainly support any efforts to get 1,4-dioxane out of commerce so we don’t have to deal with it,” he said.

Wimsatt said the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services had struggled with 1,4-dioxane contamination elsewhere in the state, particularly in areas near manufacturing plants where the compound lingered after being used for degreasing. “It’s a particularly difficult contaminant because it is particularly persistent,” he said.

The chemical was found at Rennie Farm, the wooded 200-acre property near Hanover Center where Dartmouth’s medical school buried laboratory animals and other research-related waste in the 1960s and ’70s.

College and state environmental officials believe that the 1,4-dioxane at Rennie Farm was a component in scintillation fluid, a substance used to measure extremely small levels of radioactivity.

The compound was found in the dump site at more than a hundred times the state standard for ambient water quality after Dartmouth attempted an excavation of the waste in 2011.

Later, an underground plume of 1,4-dioxane was discovered to have traveled downhill off college property to a residential home and appeared in the family’s drinking well at up to 6 ppb, or twice the current state standard.

Members of the family reported health effects, including dizziness and peeling skin, that they say subsided when they stopped using their well water. Earlier this month, they settled with Dartmouth for an undisclosed sum after threatening to take the college to federal court.

Dioxane poses a regulatory problem in New Hampshire because it is also present in treated water discharged from some wastewater plants. That creates a conundrum for DES in its effort to tighten the standard, Wimsatt said, because under state law the agency can’t give groundwater discharge permits to applicants who intend to dump a known pollutant.

“If we’re going to lower the standard, then it would immediately create a situation where wastewater plants would have to shut down,” he said, “and for other reasons that wouldn’t be a good idea.”

The solution that DES is contemplating, Wimsatt said, is to strengthen the standard but allow certain dischargers of 1,4-dioxane — such as those plants — to continue releasing the chemical into groundwater, provided that it does not enter drinking water.

The EPA classifies dioxane as a likely carcinogen based on its observed effects in animals, and has identified the chemical, a stabilizing substance found in industrial compounds and household cleaners alike, as a priority for further study.

The contaminant also can have toxic effects on the liver and kidneys if ingested in higher doses or repeatedly over a long period of time.

Gillibrand and Schumer also have introduced a bill that would direct the EPA to set a national limit for 1,4-dioxane. It currently has none.

“We’ve seen very clearly how much damage can happen to our local drinking water supplies when toxic chemicals ... aren’t monitored by the EPA,” Gillibrand, a 1988 Dartmouth graduate, said in a statement accompanying the legislation in March.

As it stands, individual states vary in the limits they set for 1,4-dioxane; Massachusetts has a drinking water guideline level of 0.3 ppb, compared to New Hampshire’s 3 ppb.

Vermont in 2015 lowered its standard for ambient water quality from 20 ppb, creating a 3 ppb limit for “enforcement” and a 1.5 ppb threshold for “preventive action.”

During the decades that researchers, manufacturers and households used 1,4-dioxane without regulations, the chemical accumulated in the environment, leading to a number of problems around the country.

On Long Island, the contaminant has been found in at least 39 water districts across Nassau and Suffolk counties, according to the advocacy group Citizens Campaign for the Environment, and has been attributed both to commercial use and byproducts of industry.

Gillibrand and Schumer are only the latest New York officials to call for more regulation of 1,4-dioxane. The extent of the contamination also has led state legislators and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, to speak out.

Noting that New York currently does not have a limit for 1,4-dioxane in groundwater, Cuomo in February threatened to set one unilaterally unless the EPA moved to regulate the chemical nationwide.

Cuomo also said he would form a “rapid response” team to test all water systems on Long Island for 1,4-dioxane and, among other measures, direct funding to the State University of New York system to develop better treatment technologies for the pollutant.

In Ann Arbor, a city of 117,000, an underground chemical plume somewhat like Hanover’s is emanating from a privately owned laboratory and leaving high levels of 1,4-dioxane in the groundwater of a densely populated suburb near the University of Michigan.

The 1,4-dioxane concentrations in Ann Arbor have reached more than 85 ppb in some areas — far higher than has appeared in Hanover residents’ wells, but not as much as on Rennie Farm itself, where last summer the contaminant was found in the dump site at nearly 600 ppb.

Since then, Dartmouth has installed and switched on a treatment system that siphons away the groundwater and rids it of dioxane.

The Michigan laboratory used to be owned by an area company, Gelman Sciences, which was founded in the late 1950s and used 1,4-dioxane in solvents that helped its manufacture of disposable laboratory filters. The Pall Corporation, headquartered in New York, acquired Gelman in 1996.

The dioxane contamination has inspired several lawsuits over the years, according to local news reports, and the EPA has agreed to consider the Ann Arbor plume for inclusion as a Superfund cleanup site.

News reports from around the country have placed 1,4-dioxane in such distant locales as Tucson, Ariz.; Fairplay, Colo.; and Charlton, Mass., a town near Worcester.

A spokeswoman for Dartmouth declined to comment on how the federal legislation may affect the college’s work at Rennie Farm or its operations more generally.

The EPA currently is reviewing 1,4-dioxane and nine other commonplace substances such as asbestos to determine what risk they pose and whether they should see further regulation.

The studies are taking place under a 2016 amendment to the 1976 federal Toxic Substances Control Act, which gives the EPA up to three years to complete its research and another two years to propose new regulations.

Industry advocates have spoken out against some elements of the review. The American Cleaning Institute, which represents producers of household and industrial cleaning products, last month asked the EPA not to consider 1,4-dioxane in consumer products because of what it called the chemical’s “extraordinarily low levels” therein.

Back in New Hampshire, Wimsatt, the DES official, said he expected the agency to put forward an initial rule change proposal within the next few months.

That proposal would trigger public hearings, which help DES craft a final proposal, which would then go before the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules for approval.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at or at 603-727-3242.

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