EPA Expands PCB Probe


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Monday that it asked an Illinois natural gas distribution company to widen its search for PCBs after the company, Ameren Corp., found the chemicals at several locations.

The PCBs are believed to have come from natural gas compressor lubricants and valve sealants – common applications for PCBs before the United States banned production and most uses of the chemicals in the 1970s. EPA and Ameren agree that the PCBs found by the company did not constitute an immediate health threat. Still, the agency is working with natural gas distributors to conduct a statewide search for the suspected carcinogen in natural gas networks.

Until recently, I would have assumed that the natural gas industry was aware of the potential problem and that companies were testing for PCBs, said Tony Martig, chief of the Toxics Section in EPAs Region 5, which is headquartered in Chicago. But in light of what weve seen recently were not so sure, so we have asked all natural gas companies in Illinois to submit information about any PCBs that they have found and any testing or investigation that they have conducted.

The regional office started its investigation after a Chicago utility company, Nicor, found PCBs in its distribution system this summer. Ameren said it conducted tests after receiving the agencys request for information and found PCBs in three collection points in its distribution system outside a middle school in Alton, Ill., and in gas meters outside three residences in East St. Louis, Ill..

Ameren described the PCBs that if found as being at low levels and said that it conducted clean-up under supervision of federal and state environmental agencies. The company is now cooperating with agency requests to widen its search to nearby homes and collection points.

We do not believe the chemicals that we found constituted a threat to anyone, but we cleaned them up as a precautionary step and are voluntarily cooperating with EPA to expand the investigation as they deem appropriate, Ameren spokeswoman Erica Abbett said.

PCBs are oily or waxy mixtures of synthetic chemicals that persist in the environment and which the EPA claims probably cause cancer. Before their effects on the environment were understood, they were valued partly for their long life and ability to hold up well under extreme temperatures.

The United States banned their production in the 1970s and generally prohibits their use, except in a few applications in sealed containers.

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