Perchlorate threatens nation's water supply

Safety levels of perchlorate in water resources are the centre of a contentious debate between the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Pentagon.

by Pamela Wolfe, Managing Editor

Both the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US Department of Defence (DOD) are responsible for protecting the US public, but from different threats. The EPA protects the environment from pollution, which damages human lives. The DOD defends the public against foreign aggression to save lives.

Currently, however, both government agencies are fighting over the issue of perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel that made its way into the local water supply of millions of people in 22 states. The EPA detected 75 perchlorate release sites in California, Maryland, Iowa, Kansas, Texas, Utah and other states. The EPA wants to test suspect sites nationwide but the DOD and defence industries are fighting back, citing the EPA risk assessment of 1 part per billion (ppb) as too strict. In early February 2003, the EPA increased this benchmark cleanup standard to 4 to 18 ppb. The defence industry claims that perchlorate is safe in drinking water up to 200 ppb - quite a difference.

The Perchlorate Study Group, a group of defence contractors and the Pentagon, is researching toxicity levels to support their claims. However, the Pentagon also requested Congress to exempt the Pentagon from environmental laws that require the cleanup of explosive residues at operational sites. Shouldn't all government agencies try to protect the health and safety of the public? Why should military bases be allowed to pollute water resources and not clean up their sites and stop the further spread of contamination? Cleanup and liability costs could cost billions of dollars for the DOD and its defence industry contractors. Who is the DOD trying to protect - defence contractors, its budget or the US public that depends on contaminated water resources for drinking water and irrigation?

Perchlorate is a naturally occurring and man-made toxic chemical, also known as an endocrine disruptor that interferes with iodide intake into the thyroid gland. Iodide is an essential component to thyroid hormones so any interference can cause thyroid ailments, such as cancer, Graves disease and tumour growth. Most at risk are pregnant mothers, newborns and young children because the thyroid plays a major role in early development. The EPA says that even small traces of perchlorate can cause neurological damage to infants.

The military started using perchlorate in solid rocket fuel back in the Cold War when national security affairs trumped most domestic environmental safety considerations. Similar to most industries, chemical wastes were simply flushed into unlined leaching ponds or dumped into creeks and rivers. Many US municipalities routinely discharged untreated sewage and industrial wastewater into waterways. The 1972 Clean Water Act changed these environmentally destructive practices.

Yet in the early 1950s, state regulators in California did try to control perchlorate disposal practices, reported the Wall Street Journal (16 Dec 2002), but defence companies continued to dump the toxic chemical in unlined pits from where it would seep into underground aquifers. Aerojet-General Corporation operated missile manufacturing plants near Los Angeles and in Rancho Cordova, located near Sacramento, and the Pentagon managed most of their perchlorate supply.

Southern California has been affected most of all so far, according to current information. Nearly 300 wells in California are polluted by perchlorate, 20 are shut down and most are linked to missile plants. Perchlorate has also been traced 400 miles up the Colorado River, a major source of water for Southern California, to the Kerr McGee ammonium perchlorate plant in Nevada. The Colorado River contains 7 ppb of perchlorate, according to the EPA. California is already seriously challenged by drought and water shortages, so the contamination of available water supplies creates massive problems.

Nine hundred pounds of perchlorate from the Kerr-McGee plant every day seep into the Las Vegas Wash, a desert riverbed that serves as the main drain into Lake Mead for Las Vegas' wastewater. Removing half of this amount every day from the Las Vegas Wash is costing the company US$ 70 million.

The Pentagon argues that it won't spend any money on remediation until the EPA promulgates a perchlorate standard, which is a long process that may take years. In the meantime, will the EPA exert its federal authority and demand nationwide testing and remediation of perchlorate? Personally, I hope so. No military-industrial complex should ever endanger public health for reasons of "national security."

Pamela Wolfe, Managing Editor

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