SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan announced Feb. 2 to develop the first nationwide rules limiting the amount of perchlorate allowed in drinking water was hailed by environmental groups who said the chemical poses a danger to public health and attacked by manufacturers who questioned those claims.
Perchlorate is a chemical that can occur naturally and is manufactured for use in rocket fuel, flares, fireworks, fertilizer and explosives.
Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not identify the specific level of perchlorate that will be allowed in tap water, the agency’s plan to regulate the chemical — a key component of solid-rocket propellant — reverses a decision made under the George W. Bush administration. In a preliminary finding published in 2008, the EPA stated that regulating perchlorate would not have a meaningful impact on public health because less than 1 percent of U.S. public drinking water systems contain harmful levels of the chemical.
That preliminary finding and subsequent EPA statements on the topic elicited nearly 39,000 public comments and prompted the agency to undertake a thorough review of the latest scientific evidence linking perchlorate to health problems. That review, ordered by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, determined that perchlorate found in drinking water can cause thyroid problems and may disrupt the normal growth and development of children in the womb, Jackson said Feb. 2 in testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. The chemical is found in water supplies serving between 5 million and 17 million Americans, Jackson added.
The Perchlorate Information Bureau, a group of companies that produce or use perchlorate, issued a statement Feb. 2 calling the new EPA regulation unwarranted and unnecessary. To regulate a chemical compound, the EPA’s guidelines require the agency to show that the chemical has an adverse impact on human health, that it is present in public health systems at a level high enough to present health concerns and that regulation of the compound would make a meaningful reduction in the risk to public health. None of those requirements has been met because “an actual risk to public health from perchlorate has yet to be scientifically established,” according to the Perchlorate Information Bureau statement.
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“The problem is that the science is telling you one thing and the regulators are disregarding it,” said Bill Romanelli, spokesman for the Perchlorate Information Bureau, who pointed to a 2005 study by the National Academy of Sciences’ Committee to Assess the Health Implications of Perchlorate Ingestion that determined that the levels of perchlorate found in drinking water “should not threaten the health of even the most sensitive populations.”
Perchlorate Information Bureau members include Aerojet, a GenCorp Inc. company; American Pacific Corp. of Las Vegas; Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems; and Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md.
American Pacific’s Cedar City, Utah-based Western Electrochemical Co. is the sole remaining U.S. producer of the ammonium perchlorate used for the solid-rocket propellant that fuels boosters built by Aerojet and Alliant Techsystems for civil, commercial and military space programs.
Perchlorate has been the subject of intense scrutiny by environmental groups in recent years who lobbied for state and federal regulation due to concerns that the chemical’s presence in drinking water posed a danger to the health of pregnant women and children. That pressure was met with resistance from Department of Defense officials struggling with the massive job of identifying and cleaning up perchlorate and other contaminants left decades ago at current and former military bases and munitions sites nationwide.
At the state level, perchlorate regulations already have been implemented. In 2007, regulations were issued in California, a state that bears a large share of the burden of nationwide perchlorate contamination, according to Mae Wu, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Those regulations, which set a maximum contaminant level of 6 micrograms per liter, are under review. On Jan. 7, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment proposed decreasing that level from 6 micrograms per liter to 1 microgram per liter. The proposed rules indicate heightened concern that even small levels of perchlorate in drinking water can have a harmful affect on infants and children, Wu said.
EPA officials did not offer a timeframe for new perchlorate regulations, but Jackson said the agency would study the feasibility and affordability of treatment options as well as the costs and benefits of new standards. One industry official suggested it may take three to four years before federal perchlorate regulations are implemented.
Once those rules are in place, states are likely to adopt the federal regulations or impose their own guidelines, which may force rocket manufacturers to undertake expensive cleanup campaigns, industry officials said. Firms responsible for the perchlorate found in public water supplies also could be the target of lawsuits by public utilities seeking to recoup the cost of treating the contaminated water, one official added.
California companies, like Sacramento-based Aerojet, already have aggressive groundwater remediation programs in place. Aerojet pumps somewhere between 25 million and 30 million gallons of groundwater a day to filter out perchlorate and other chemicals, said Chris Conley, GenCorp vice president for environmental health and safety.
The problem of perchlorate pollution stems from government and industry use of the compound from the 1950s through the 1970s, when the chemical was believed to be safe, said Alliant Techsystems spokesman George Torres. Once health concerns were raised in the 1980s, companies began controlling their use of perchlorate to prevent any runoff. “We have a closed-loop system,” Torres said. “There has not been any perchlorate discharge since the 1980s, and it doesn’t impact our current or future operations.”