EPA Bans Asbestos Component Crucial to Production of Chlorine

Oct. 3, 2022
EPA bans key component for producing chlorine with no solidified plan for transitioning the water treatment plans relying upon it.

There are some compound conundrums in the world of drinking water these days.

One foremost issue is the PFAS quandary: for the treatment plants still relying on chlorine, disinfecting water may create PFAS, which then contaminates drinking water. To upgrade these facilities to no longer rely on chlorine takes both time and money, and the Biden-Harris Administration legislation paradoxically proposes both healthy funding and tight deadlines.

The Link Between Chlorine & PFAS

Under the Administration's direction, the EPA has prioritized tackling PFAS. In April of 2022, it proposed a rule to regulate chrysotile, one of six asbestos fibers previously identified as a source of PFAS. This rule falls under Section 6(a) of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which states that the EPA has the authority to “prohibit or limit the manufacture, processing, distribution in commerce, use, or disposal” of chemicals they deem risky to human health or the environment.

At a March 29, 2022, Energy and Commerce Committee Hearing, Eric Olsen, Natural Resources Defence Council senior strategic director for health and food, spoke to the need to remove PFAS from drinking water and likened the American infrastructure to a poorly-maintained, decades-old car: falling apart, not modernized, not up to snuff, especially in low-income and rural places. Three months later, in June of 2022, the EPA released four drinking water health advisories for PFAS and one billion dollars of funding to address PFAS found in the drinking water of small and disadvantaged communities.

However, PFAS exposure is not the only concern related to chrystoline (and therefore asbestos). Chlorine plant workers can potentially develop mesothelioma if exposed to asbestos during the diaphragm barrier manufacturing process. Also, chlorine gas leaks are not uncommon. In July 2022, Olin in was fined $80,000 to settle air pollution violations from one of the three airborne gas leaks reported since 2020.

While there are several ways to produce chlorine, nine U.S. plants still rely upon an asbestos method for which chrystoline is critical. For these plants' communities, chlorine is crucial to creating safe drinking water. Herein lies the dilemma: in the interest of making drinking water safe, a rule has been proposed banning a substance that is instrumental to making safe drinking water.

According to Congressman Dan Crenshaw and the American Water Works Association (AWWA), the short answer is that this dilemma poses a real problem at least until these plants can convert to a chlorine-making method that doesn’t rely on chrystoline. In addition, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) and American Chemistry Council (ACC) have also expressed alarm at the potential consequences of further damaging the already-diminished chlor-alkali industry. 

4 Points of Contention to the Ban Proposal

In a June 1, 2022, letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, AWWA voiced concern over what they perceive to be significant flaws in the proposal.

1. Retrofitting Facilities is Time-consuming & Costly

AWWA estimates that the conversion of these plants that rely on asbestos to membrane cell technology will cost $1.8 billion or more across nine plants. In addition, EPA legislation allows just two years for the nine plants to complete the transition, significantly less than the 10-year transition period included in prior bipartisan legislation.

2. Supply Chain Disruptions Across Numerous Industries

Chlor-alkali pollution is only one source of worry for those communities still dependent on chlorine. Another serious concern is supply chain shortage.

“Many chlor-alkali plants have closed in recent years. Declining production coincided with a succession of regulations and marketplace deselections of products that are high consumers of chlorine," said Jim Vallette, former research director for Healthy Building Network.

The supply issue is so pressing that last year Regan sent an urgent letter to chemical sector partners to remind them that chlorine is critical to some drinking water systems. Yet, disconcertingly, this plea to keep supplying chlorine went out to manufacturers even as the EPA drafted the rule banning the chemicals used to produce it. 

The Chlorine Institute reports that North American chlorine production has been steadily declining since peaking in the year 2000 at more than 12.7 million metric tons. That same year, an EPA study noted that “concerns over chlorine’s potential to form toxic chlorinated organics has had a negative effect on the use of chlorine in this industry.” The study further noted that “environmental regulations affecting chlorine end-use markets have reduced the demand for chlorine and help explain the exit of selected chlorine plants.”

The IHS Markit also noted this production drop in 2015, stating “The chlorine industry … has been under pressure as a result of evidence that several chlorine-containing products are harmful to the environment, to workers and the general public.”

3. Compliance Problems & Water Bill Increases 

AWWA cautioned, “Short-term supply shortages of chlorine, caustic soda, and derivative chemicals are likely to lead to price increases experienced by both industrial and commercial users, some of which may be passed along to final consumers of products made with these inputs.”

Despite reduced manufacturing capacity, the continued demand has already contributed to these price increases. According to the Impact of EPA’s Proposed Asbestos-Diaphragm Chlor-Alkali Rulemaking, the demand has resulted in record high prices for chlorine.

“As a result of a tight supply/demand balance in 2022, North American chlorine market prices have reached record highs … Although US chlorine demand has remained strong,” the analysis stats, “discovery indicates that the rapid and significant elevation of merchant chlorine prices over the past year may be reaching a tipping point that threatens demand erosion.”

4. Adverse, Unintended & Unknown Consequences

Crenshaw argued that there are “second and third-order consequences to limit asbestos production." He urged the EPA to regulate with the entire picture in mind. PFAS associated with asbestos production does not enter the drinking water supply. Beyond decontaminating water, chlorine is used to produce the PVC critical to drinking water and sewage transportation.

But as Olson conveyed to Crenshaw at the afore-mentioned Congressional committee meeting, many manufacturers have already found chlorine alternatives.

Alternatives to Chlorine

The Dutch treat drinking water using physical processes such as sedimentation, filtration and UV disinfection rather than chemical chlorination. Likewise, in North America, perhaps an answer to these increased regulations and the 150% cost increase seen this year in water treatment chemicals is to stop using them altogether and instead switch to economic and eco-friendly systems such as oxygen and ozonation systems.

It is widely held that PFAS in drinking water is bad, so converting those nine plants logically follows as a good move. However, converting plants reliant on asbestos for chlorine takes both time and money. The EPA acknowledges that it has “insufficient information to fully assess the impact of this proposed rule on the cost or availability of water treatment chemicals."

Perhaps it will demonstrate the same self-awareness and either explain or re-evaluate proposed timelines to the worried organizations in the wings. Vital to the proposal's success is an EPA that proceeds thoughtfully to implement a plan as good as its intentions.

Sources

  1. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, 40 CFR Part 751, [EPA–HQ–OPPT–2021–0057; FRL–8332–02–OCSPP] RIN 2070–AK86, Asbestos Part 1: Chrysotile Asbestos; Regulation of Certain Conditions of Use Under Section 6(a) of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/FR-2022-04-12/pdf/2022-07601.pdf
  2. Problem Formulation of the Risk Evaluation for Asbestos
  3. Energy and Commerce Committee. 2022. “Trusting the Tap: Upgrading America's Drinking Water Infastructure.” Trusting the Tap: Upgrading America's Drinking Water Infastructure. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qxqqyXXo1Q.
  4. EPA Actions to Address PFAS
  5. Serafin, Lauren. 2017. “How Asbestos Invaded the Chlorine Industry.” Mesothelioma.com. https://www.mesothelioma.com/blog/how-asbestos-invaded-the-chlorine-industry/.
  6. Chlorine and Building Materials. A Global Inventory of Production Technologies, Markets, and Pollution. Phase 1: Africa, The Americas, and Europe
  7. The Chlorine Institute. “Pamphlet 10: North American Chlor-Alkali Industry Plants and Production Data Report for 2016,” November 2017. https://bookstore.chlorineinstitute.org/pamphlet-10-north-american-chlor-alkali-industry-plants-and-production-data-report-2014-132.html (Pamphlet 10).
  8. Kreuz, H., Kovics, N., Suarez, L., Lopez, A., & Herzog, N. (2022, July 13). Impact of EPA’s Proposed AsbestosDiaphragm Chlor-Alkali Rulemaking. https://www.americanchemistry.com/content/download/11507/file/Impact-of-EPAs-Proposed-Asbestos-Diaphragm-Chlor-Alkali-Rulemaking.pdf
  9. Fuller, Jonathan. 2016. “A Water Treatment Alternative to Chlorine? | Engineering360.” Engineering News. https://insights.globalspec.com/article/3112/a-water-treatment-alternative-to-chlorine
About the Author

Ariana Berry

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