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Ninth Circuit Urged to Force EPA to Take New Look at Cancer-Causing Chemical

The Trump administration may be no more, but lawsuits over its handling of the environment continue unabated.

(CN) — Public health and environmental justice advocates filed a petition with the Ninth Circuit Monday challenging the EPA’s failure to ban the use of 1,4-dioxane, a widely used solvent that studies show causes cancer in humans. 

The seven groups including the Center for Environmental Health are active in eastern North Carolina, where 1,4 dioxane routinely shows up in drinking water samples taken from various sources in the Cape Fear River Basin.

“One in five North Carolinians get their drinking water from the Cape Fear River Basin,” said Kemp Burdette of Cape Fear River Watch. “The watershed also has some of the highest levels of 1,4-dioxane in the entire country. 1,4 dioxane represents a clear and present danger to millions of residents of the Cape Fear Basin and we cannot afford to sit back and do nothing as industrial pollutants poison our loved ones.”

The EPA released its final risk evaluation for 1,4-dioxane in late January after publishing a final evaluation of the chemical compound in the federal register on Jan. 8. The findings said that the solvent, widely used in various consumer products like shampoo, soap and surface cleaners, posed no threat to the general consumer. 

“After reviewing eight consumer uses of surface cleaners, laundry/dishwashing detergents, and paint/floor lacquer where 1,4-dioxane is present as a byproduct, the agency found no unreasonable risks,” the agency said. 

Public health groups say the decision is yet another by Trump’s EPA that puts the profits of chemical companies above the interests of regular citizens reeling from the health impacts of pollution and contamination. 

“Trump’s EPA played eleventh-hour politics with our health,” said Emily Donovan of Clean Cape Fear. “They ignored the cancer risk we face every day simply drinking contaminated water and caring for our families. If we can’t rely on our regulators to take health and environmental threats seriously, then why do they even exist?”

The plaintiffs say the EPA's final risk assessment relied less on the merits of the science and more on technicalities, noting that the EPA used what plaintiffs regard as a legally dubious claim that ruling on the compound’s threat to humans through drinking water contamination is not under the agency’s scope as outlined by the Toxic Substances Control Act. 

The groups also said they are confident the Biden administration will take a look at the chemical compound and make its own determination at some point, but felt a lawsuit was necessary to ensure the problem is taken seriously. 

“While we hope the incoming administration upholds its commitment to environmental justice, we also have to take this challenge to the U.S. Court of Appeals because the stakes are just too high,” Donovan said. 

Undoing the regulations and decisions is not as easy as a stroke of a pen as is the case with executive orders. For agency decisions, incoming administrations must follow the Administrative Procedure Act, something the Trump administration learned in its first two years when many of its environmental rollbacks did not survive court challenges. 

In 2017, water officials tested the water samples for residents of Greensboro, North Carolina, and found some with contamination levels as high as 705 parts per billion, one of the highest in the nation. 

The EPA labels 1,4-dioxane as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” 

The American Cleaning Institute, a lobby group that represents the interest of cleaning supply manufacturers, said they agreed with the EPA’s assessment that trace amounts of the solvent are not toxic to humans, but criticized the agency for not further exploring threats to the general population due to drinking water contamination. 

“In light of recent concerns raised by stakeholders, including state water agencies, we recommend that EPA reconsider evaluating Genera Population risks associated with drinking water as a part of the risk evaluation,” the lobbying group said in formal comments submitted to the agency on Dec. 10.

The institute said that a lack of a federal standard will prompt states to take regulatory action, creating a more patchwork regulatory field for businesses to navigate. 

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