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California Bill Revives Old Formaldehyde Debate

CalARVC logoThe California Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (CalARVC) has taken an aggressive stance in support of state legislation banning the sale of RV and marine holding tank products containing six chemicals – most notably formaldehyde — on the premise that these substances threaten ground water quality.

That bill (AB 1824) unanimously (73-0) passed out of the full Assembly in mid-May and went to the Senate Toxics and Environmental Quality Committee for a hearing sometime in June.

“This means it is one more hurdle in the process,” remarked CalARVC Executive Director Debbie Sipe, who has been outspoken in advocating the proposed holding tank chemical ban and feels the bill has a good chance of moving through the Senate Appropriations Committee, then the full Senate and, finally, across the California Governor’s desk by August or September.

Debbie Sipe, CalARVC executive director

Debbie Sipe, CalARVC executive director

“We’ve got some strategies to get more support for the bill, but we are not disclosing all of that right now,” Sipe told RVBusiness.

“Toxic chemicals, like those used in many common RV toilet additives, kill the natural bio-organisms and cause the septic systems to fail, causing sewage to seep into surrounding soil and groundwater,” CalTIA legislative advocate Teresa Cooke wrote in a letter to Felipe Fuentes, chairman of the Assembly Appropriations Committee. “AB 1824 will help keep the state’s groundwater clean, and benefit hundreds of small businesses throughout the state, potentially saving them tens of thousands of dollars that would otherwise be spent on repairing or replacing their parks’ septic systems.”

Nineteen chemicals already are banned in state regulations. “AB 1824 will simply clarify that six additional chemicals cannot be used in RV toilet additives for the same reasons as the 19 currently banned,” Cooke said.

Taking a vocal position against the bill is Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Thetford Corp., which markets a complete range of RV and marine sanitation products from toilets to waste evacuation systems to holding tank additives, including some affected by the potential ban and some not targeted by California legislation – including an array of third-party-certified, formaldehyde-free Eco-Smart holding tank deodorants and additives.

Kevin Phillips, Thetford. Corp.

Kevin Phillips, Thetford. Corp.

Thetford’s contention is that California’s proposed law is a bit overzealous with regard to formaldehyde-type products and doesn’t take into account some of the general habits of the camping public and the functionality of many septic systems. And the company has been trying to get that message across.

“We are trying to get a broader discussion going about this,” Kevin Phillips, vice president of sales and marketing, told RVBusiness in a recent interview. “This might move very quickly through the legislative process in California and miss the key issues. CalARVC has been dealing with issues around their sanitation systems for years. This goes back decades that they’ve been having struggles with their legislative entities about their septic systems and their wastewater treatment plants.

“From time to time, we’ve been providing them with data, information, resources, and education, trying to help them navigate that problem,” Phillips added. “We are very sympathetic to the issues California campgrounds are facing. We just don’t think the bill they put in place is going to solve those problems.”

The bill puts the focus on deodorants and holding tank additives, and Phillips maintains that that’s not the main issue. “You’re out for a holiday weekend and everybody leaves Memorial Day Monday and they all dump at once,” he explained. “So you get a very large volume of very highly concentrated waste entering the system. These systems are very sensitive to both the organic load and the volume of waste. They also have to be properly maintained. They have to be properly sized, the waste has to be metered in so that it’s not hitting all at once in a short period of time, and you’ve got to monitor these systems.”

Thetford’s Mary Burrows, manager of chemical development, also doesn’t believe that the ban, as proposed, is the answer. “The products we are talking about and the two that are used most predominantly, formaldehyde and bronopol, are actually biodegradable,” she explained. “They don’t exist in a properly functioning system after a period of time.”

Burrows, for her part, suspects that the real issue concerns misuse.

“Eliminating deodorant is not looking at the real problem,” she said. “What they need to address, at least look at and make sure, is that their systems are sized and operated properly so we can verify what the problem is. Again, we need data. Right now there are just assumptions.”

Phillips, on the other hand, agrees that Thetford doesn’t have enough scientific evidence itself to point to the exact problems California campgrounds are facing. “That’s the part we find to be very short-sighted about pushing this bill through so quickly with this one approach,” he countered. “There’s been no data presented, there have been no studies, no analysis that we know of that say that the deodorant actually causes the problems in the systems in these campgrounds.

“What we have seen is some studies that say the septic systems aren’t working,” he added. “We know that people have been cited for that, even though the citations were later removed. But it’s about the outflow of the system, not what’s going into it. That’s what we are saying. This is kind of a rush to judgment, a rush to a conclusion that is a bit unseemly.”

Phillips, in summary, feels that California needs to do more homework and then work together to solve the problems campgrounds are facing. Just how far Thetford gets with that position, however, remains to be seen because Sipe and her allies in this legislative effort apparently aren’t backing off.

“We know there are additional issues with septic systems and that solids are a concern and we hope to be able to work with Thetford in the future,” said Sipe. “But when all is said and done, formaldehyde is a preservative and you don’t want that in a septic system. You don’t want a product that is eating up the natural bacteria in a septic system.”

Sipe says she’s well aware that, along with formaldehyde-based products, Thetford markets “green” holding tank deodorants and additives that are third-party certified as environmentally safe. “Thetford’s two green alternatives are awesome alternatives that folks are using,” she noted. “Camping World recently had a sale on both of these green Thetford products and Thetford’s traditional (formaldehyde) Aqua-Kem. “The Aqua-Kem shelf was mostly full while the green alternative shelf was half empty. There is already a natural movement toward the greener products by the consumer.”

Time will tell what occurs with the current legislation. But Sipe is already planning on life after the ban is passed. “When this bill passes,” she said, “our goal will be to put out huge amounts of education throughout the entire country that these products are not allowed in California.”

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