MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Companies in Minnesota have one more year to replace a toxic chemical with a safer alternative.

The state became the first in the nation to ban TCE in 2020. The move followed two years of investigative reports by WCCO on Water Gremlin. Its Twin Cities plant had released unsafe levels of the cancer-causing chemical into the air for more than 15 years, resulting in a multi-million dollar fine.

WCCO’s Jennifer Mayerle looks at a program working with companies to make better choices.

Water Gremlin’s illegal and excessive release of TCE into the air in White Bear Township brought to light the danger of the toxic chemical. Neighbors living near the manufacturing plant fear their cancer and other health issues were caused by the company’s emissions.

READ MORE: Gov. Walz Signs Minnesota Ban On Toxic Chemical TCE

And the state learned Water Gremlin wasn’t the only company using the chemical. That’s when the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program or MnTAP, and Senior Engineer Jane Paulson, became involved. Paulson said companies in Minnesota that were using TCE reached out to MnTAP for help.

“Because of the high publicity on the situation,” Paulson said.

“They saw what was happening and that TCE was getting a bad rap?” Mayerle said.

“Really a bad rap,” Paulson said.

Paulson leads MnTAP’s effort to help manufacturers find safer and sustainable alternatives.

“In a lot cases, they’ve been using these safely for a long time. The knowledge about what’s safe and what isn’t safe changes,” Paulson said.

The work by MnTAP comes at no cost to companies. Paulson finds out what they use TCE for, and sends samples to the Toxic Use Reduction Institute at UMass.

“They are doing solubility testing, they are identifying some safer alternatives and testing to ensure that they’ll work in a lab setting,” Paulson said.

Paulson says the change takes time, and is often costly, as new equipment is needed for most alternatives. Her best recommendation are what are considered “water-based cleaners.”

WATCH MORE: WCCO’s Water Gremlin Investigation

“It’s a big change in how they work, though, so it takes a change in mindset, it takes a little bit more trial and error to find the right part and the right equipment,” Paulson said.

Right now, Water Gremlin is using a chemical called t-DCE. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently studying risks associated with it. Paulson doesn’t think it’s a long-term solution for manufacturers.

“Making an improvement is an improvement, and you know, if you can only make it a small improvement now, let’s do that and you can make a bigger improvement later,” Paulson said.

But the goal is for companies to find more sustainable alternatives.

“It’s easier to make these changes on your own time frame than because you’re under some kind of regulatory deadline,” Paulson said.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has an interactive map that updates facilities using TCE, along with progress made, in real time.

Twenty-six of the 39 companies that used TCE have stopped, or found an alternative. Three companies still using it have not identified a replacement. Take a closer look at where companies stand here.

“We can give them alternatives that we would recommend, but it’s up to them what they decide to implement,” Paulson said.

READ MORE: Water Gremlin Signs Stipulation Agreement With MPCA; Pays $325K Penalty, Corrects Violations

Companies have until next June to switch to a less-toxic alternative. Zero-interest loans are available to help businesses make the change.

A Water Gremlin representative gave this statement to WCCO:

Water Gremlin replaced TCE with t-DCE in 2019, in cooperation with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and continues to meet MDH guidelines regarding its use. Water Gremlin continues to develop and implement new environmentally friendly and sustainable technologies including water-based and ultraviolet light-cured coating processes. As a result, we have significantly reduced our use of t-DCE. We are working collaboratively with the MPCA to approve expansion of the ultraviolet light coating process which will further reduce use of solvent-based coatings.

Jennifer Mayerle