EPA Won’t Regulate Rocket Fuel Toxic in Drinking Water


Rocket Launch

Perchlorate, a toxic component of rocket fuel that contaminates drinking water at sites in at least 35 states, will not be regulated at the national level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has decided.

The agency announced its preliminary decision not to regulate perchlorate in drinking water late Friday. Instead, the EPA said in a statement that it is “committed to working with states and localities to ensure public health is protected.”

“States have the right to establish and enforce drinking water standards and EPA encourages state-specific situations to be addressed at the local level,” the EPA said.

California and Massachusetts have already passed laws regulating perchlorate in drinking water.

Ammonium perchlorate is widely used throughout the aerospace, munitions, and pyrotechnics industries as a primary ingredient in solid rocket and missile propellants, fireworks, and explosive charges. It is a component of more than 350 types of munitions, according to the Department of Defense.

The chemical has been found not only in drinking water but also in lettuce and milk. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration reported finding perchlorate in 217 of 232 samples of milk and lettuce in 15 states.

Perchlorate has been found in drinking water in 35 states. (Photo courtesy NASA)

Perchlorate affects the ability of the thyroid gland to take up iodine, which is needed to make thyroid hormones that regulate many body functions. Children and pregnant women are are especially susceptible.

The EPA said in its statement Friday that after a review of scientific data on the health effects of exposure to perchlorate from drinking water and other sources the agency found that “in more than 99 percent of public drinking water systems, perchlorate was not at levels of public health concern.”

Based on the Safe Water Drinking Act criteria, the agency said there is not a “meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction” through a national drinking water regulation.

Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said this finding is the result of political, rather than scientific, considerations. “No explanation of this bizarre finding is offered. Perhaps none is needed. Everyone who’s paying attention knows that EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson is acutely tuned-in to the political signals coming from the White House – so tuned-in that his conversations with the executive branch have become a form of highly privileged state secret.”

The EPA is seeking public input on its decision and will make a final determination for perchlorate after considering information provided in the 30-day public comment period.

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer of California lost no time in offering her public comment.

“Once again on a Friday, when nobody is paying attention, the Bush administration announces a policy that will harm the American people. The Bush EPA’s failure to set a standard for perchlorate, a dangerous contaminant found in drinking water, is outrageous and I will do everything in my power to reverse it,” Boxer said.

“Perchlorate contamination endangers the health of our families, especially pregnant women and children,” she said, “and to simply allow it to remain in our drinking water is immoral.”

Perchlorate is found in the drinking water supplies of up to 16.6 million Americans, according to EPA. But Boxer cites the estimates of independent researchers that 20 million or more Americans are exposed to the toxin.

In July, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed two measures to protect the public from exposure to perchlorate. One requires the EPA to resume testing of drinking water for perchlorate and disclose the results of those tests to the public. The other requires the EPA to promptly set a standard for perchlorate in drinking water that protects pregnant women and children. Neither of these measures has become law.

Rocket launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California (Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force)

Perchlorate has been found at 46 Superfund sites out of 1,557 current and deleted sites, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Water Benjamin Grumbles told a House of Representatives hearing in 2007.

Of these 46 sites, he said, 12 are private sites and 34 are federal facilities. At approximately 28 sites, perchlorate concentrations in ground water or drinking water exceed 24.5 parts per billion, which is the Defense Department’s level of concern for managing perchlorate in ground water.

Perchlorate has been discovered in over 350 of 6,400 public water supply wells tested in California, the EPA says on its website. “Contamination of groundwater and of the Colorado River affects important drinking water and irrigation water supplies. There may be over 30 sites with perchlorate in California alone. Thirteen of these are EPA Superfund sites and the state of California leads cleanup efforts at 12 other sites.”

In Massachusetts, the chemical has been found in groundwater plumes issuing from the Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod.

The Pentagon has denied any role in the EPA’s decision, saying, “We have not intervened in any way in EPA’s determination not to regulate perchlorate. If you read their determination, that’s based on criteria in the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Cleanup technologies for perchlorate are available. The EPA states on its website that the agency has demonstrated “cost-effective, full-scale perchlorate treatment technologies” at California’s Aerojet, San Gabriel Valley, Lawrence Livermore Site 300, and NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory Superfund sites. The San Gabriel perchlorate treatment system was the first in the nation to treat millions of gallons of water per day to deliver clean water to a municipal water supply.

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