“Rocket Fuel” Controversy Deepens

By Jill Clay

The discovery of rocket fuel pollution in groundwater nationwide has aggravated concerns about federal safety standards.

Manufacturers in 39 states use perchlorate — a fast moving, long-lasting chemical with adverse health effects — in rockets, missiles, fireworks and road flares.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 25 states have detected it (PDF) in their groundwater.

Despite this, no federal agency has set any perchlorate safety standards, and state regulatory agencies have been left to their own devices.

“Both the U.S. EPA and California EPA are trying to set public health goals, and both processes have completely bogged down,” said Dr. Gina Solomon, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

California Frontline

In California, perchlorate from industrial sites all over the state has contaminated drinking water and irrigation systems.

According to the state Department of Health Services, the chemical has been found in East Sacramento, Placer, Santa Clara, San Benito, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, and in the lower Colorado River.

“We’re very concerned” about the chemical’s health risks, said Harvey Packard, a senior engineer at the California’s Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“Groundwater contamination will not go away anytime soon. It will probably be decades before [affected communities] can use their wells without a filter,” he said.

Most of the perchlorate in California and the Southwest originates just outside of Las Vegas, at a Kerr-McGee ammonium perchlorate plant that, while closed since 1998, remains a hazard.

According to Chemical and Engineering News, Kerr-McGee’s cleanup efforts have cut the rate of pollution — but the site is still contaminating the lower Colorado River with hundreds of pounds of perchlorate every day, putting up to 15 million people in California, Arizona and Nevada at risk.

The threat extends well beyond drinking water: The Colorado River irrigates almost a million acres of farmland in California and Arizona.

But according to Dave Spath of California’s Division of Drinking Water and Environmental Management, “There are virtually no standards for irrigation water.”

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, set off a furor earlier this year with a study that found significant perchlorate contamination of winter lettuce grown in California.

The state Department of Health Services disputed this, stating on its website (PDF) that the findings were not “credible and reliable” and that “it is premature to draw any conclusions.”

Both the California Department of Health Services and the federal EPA confirm that perchlorate has severe health effects, disrupting the thyroid gland and potentially causing tumors, affecting metabolism and fetal development, and causing behavioral changes and mental retardation in children.

Testing continues in individual states, an EPA official said, but there has been no coordinated effort to set standards or clean up.

“We’re looking to the states” to collect that data, said EPA spokeswoman Lisa Fisano. “We have notified all the public water systems … Individual states will make a determination of what they want to do.”

“Contamination Plume”

Further research has revealed the problem is increasingly widespread.

On September 26, the Yuma Sun reported that scientists at Texas Tech University found perchlorate in milk sold in Texas supermarkets, and that the University of Arizona is now investigating lettuce and cattle feed for contamination.

Of the affected states, California has taken notable steps, recently passing new legislation to track perchlorate pollution and provide clean water for affected communities.

The state has not, however, set any enforceable safety standards for perchlorate in public water systems, and can only recommend — not require — that a municipality take contaminated water sources offline.

In Morgan Hill, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board and the local water district are the first line of defense against perchlorate pollution from a flare-manufacturing plant that operated there from 1955 to 1995.

The problem is bad enough that water district and the factory’s former owners are providing bottled water to the affected residents for as long as the wells are contaminated.

According to Tom Mohr, the water district’s toxics liaison, the groundwater “contamination plume” from the factory stretches over nine miles as of this past August.

“It’s been a little surprising how far it has gone,” he said.

In nearby San Martin, a perchlorate community advisory group formed in April 2003 to bring together residents, government officials, water providers, geologists, academics and others to resolve the problem.

“It’s been wonderful working with these people,” said Sylvia Hamilton, president of the group. “Everyone has been cooperative and responsive. I’m used to having to fight every step of the way, but every elected official has been asking how they can help.”

Still, Hamilton added, “We have a long ways to go” before the area’s wells are all safe again.

Testing and Delays

Perchlorate has been recognized as a potential hazard for many years, but only recently have regulators begun to take action — with mixed results.

In Congress, California lawmakers have introduced legislation that would establish a federal drinking-water standard by July 2004, and guarantee a community’s “right-to-know” about local perchlorate use.

But in March, the Palm Springs Desert Sun reported that an EPA official said the proposed deadline was too soon.

This past August, following Bush administration attempts to exempt the Department of Defense from environmental legislation, the Pentagon agreed that its contractors would not be shielded from regulation of the chemical.

According to Dr. Gina Solomon of the NRDC, California had an “excellent draft public health goal,” but the standard has been delayed by a successful lawsuit filed against the state by Lockheed-Martin and Kerr-McGee corporations, resulting in another round of scientific review.

The EPA has been studying perchlorate as a potential hazard since 1997, and has required all large public water systems to monitor for the chemical.

In 2002, the agency proposed a strict standard of one part perchlorate per billion parts of water — compared to California’s proposed standard of between two and six parts per billion, and the Pentagon’s hopes for a permissable level of as much as 200 parts per billion.

The move towards regulation was delayed earlier this year when the Bush administration called for further research and review.

Activist organizations like the Environmental Working Group and the Natural Resources Defense Council estimate the process could take as long as 10 years.

EPA spokesman John Millett said the effects of perchlorate on human health still need more research.

“I think that a lot of members of the scientific community would agree” that perchlorate is well-researched, he said. “But by the same token, this is another layer of review that will lead to the best possible regulation.”

“We have to go through all this red tape,” said EPA scientist Annie Jarabek. “I don’t think there’s any question that we’re working very hard towards getting to regulation.”

“The regulatory process is excruciatingly slow,” said Solomon. “At the end we may end up with an appropriate protective standard … but in the meantime water utilities don’t know what to do and people don’t know if they can drink their water.”

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