EPA-Mandated PCB Removal Could Cost Billions

December 2010 Vol. 65 No. 12

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may require pipelines to severely reduce the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) throughout their systems, a move which would cost the industry tens, and potentially hundreds, of billions of dollars, according to the American Gas Association. Pamela F. Faggert, vice president and chief environmental officer, Dominion Resources Services, Inc., says the new regulatory measures the EPA is considering could cost her company alone a minimum of $300 million.

Patricia Kablach Casano, government affairs counsel for corporate environmental programs at General Electric, filed 80-pages of technical comments on Oct. 18, 2010 disputing the EPA's concerns about human health concerns arising from PCB exposure, concerns highlighted in the EPA advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPRM) issued last April. The INGAA and AGA signed the GE comments. Casano argues that PCBs are not the cancer threat they once were thought to be, that pipelines have been reducing the amount of PCBs in their systems and that there is no indication that PCB exposure associated with leaking pipeline fluids poses an unreasonable threat to human health.

Minute amounts of PCBs were introduced into pipelines 40 and 50 years ago as fire retardants in the liquid hydraulic fluid or lubricating oil in pipeline compressors, as valve grease, or as fogging agents in local distribution mains. PCB use was banned by the Toxic Substances Control Act in the mid 1970s out of concern that the chemical caused cancer in humans. PCBs already in pipelines were allowed to remain, subject to restrictions, which changed over the years. In 1984 and later in 1998, when it finalized what is called its Mega Rule, the EPA acknowledged that PCBs in pipelines posed a reasonable risk since pipelines are closed systems, and opportunities for leaks of PCBs are minimal. The Mega Rule, which included provisions applicable to all industries, allowed pipelines and compressors to have PCB concentrations below 50 parts per million (ppm) under the terms of a "use exemption." Concentrations above that threshold were also allowed provided the operator follows applicable management practices and approved characterization and disposal practices.

The EPA's ability, in a legal sense, to change the 1998 Mega Rule depends on its ability to reverse its 1998 "no unreasonable risk" assessment. John Smith, a chemist in the EPA's fibers and organics branch, who is leading the PCB rulemaking, argues the agency can do that simply by determining its action is "less than arbitrary."