In 2002, wells were shut down in Bourne, Massachusetts, and homeowners were told not to drink from their taps until they were hooked up to the public water supply.
In 2005, Rialto, California, residents saw their water bills spike 65% as the local water company passed along the cost of a toxic cleanup.
And this past November, a state of emergency was declared as Barstow, California’s water supply was found to be contaminated.
The culprit in each case was perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel and fireworks. It’s been spreading via groundwater plumes for decades, leeching into water supplies in at least 26 states. It shows up in some capacity in nearly all states. Perchlorate is known to inhibit thyroid function, which can lead to a host of health problems, especially in babies.
So EPA chief Lisa Jackson recently announced a plan to start regulating perchlorate. Which is nice.
But why isn’t it regulated already? To answer that, we have to look at where perchlorate comes from. What do Bourne, Rialto and Barstow have in common?
Bourne partially sits on the Massachusetts Military Installation, an EPA Superfund site that has housed aircraft operations since the 1930s and has seen all manner of chemical and fuel spills. It has also been used as an old-munitions explosion site, the Cape Cod Times reported. Rialto is home to a 160-acre area first used during World War II to store ordnance-hauling rail cars, and over the years has been used by defense contractors and fireworks manufacturers. And the Barstow contamination was first discovered by the Marine Corps at its area Logistics Base.
The Feds say 90% of perchlorate is used in a defense/aerospace capacity and is most frequently found at Air Force, Army and Navy installations. In short, the massive cost of any cleanup that would result from federal regulation of perchlorate would fall largely on the Department of Defense and its contractors.
In early 2005, the National Resources Defense Council announced it had documents showing that there was an ongoing, willful attempt by certain government agencies to undermine efforts to address perchlorate pollution.
If there was any one person behind this attempt, it was Ray DuBois, according to the nonprofit Public Education Center’s DC Bureau. As Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Installations and Environment during much of President George W. Bush’s first term, DuBois constantly questioned EPA strategies that might impact the military’s.
Though it had never mandated maximum perchlorate levels in drinking water, the EPA for years had been issuing provisional reference doses – maximum levels of exposure safe for the average person. In 1992, that reference dose was 4 parts per billion. In 1995, it was updated to between 4 and 18 ppb. In 2002, EPA planned to drastically lower it to 1 ppb. But before it could, DuBois undercut the EPA by asking a National Academy of Sciences panel to conduct its own study, DC Bureau says. The panel’s makeup was decided with input from a number of interested parties. The panel’s result: an updated reference dose of 24.5 ppb.
Two members of that NAS panel, Dr. Richard Bull and Dr. Charles Capen, were shown to have conflicts of interest, both previously having done work for defense contractor behemoth Lockheed Martin, according to California Sen. Barbara Boxer.
The EPA re-examined the NAS conclusion and eventually lowered its reference dose to the current 15 ppb, but, in 2008, the EPA declared it would not regulate perchlorate, because it wasn’t a public health concern.
Despite defense contractors’ continued lobbying of the White House to block any EPA move on perchlorate regulations, as illustrated by a 2009 Greenwire story in the New York Times, the EPA has now reversed course. But government agencies with interests beyond public health continue to have a say. Indeed, the EPA, in its Feb. 2 announcement of its intention to regulate perchlorate, said the process will include receiving input from “key stakeholders.”
This sort of “stakeholder input” can be dangerous, the Government Accountability Office reports, because it may delay the implementation of regulations needed to protect public health. In perchlorate’s case, it’s already been a near 20-year process. But it’s these very delays that the Defense Department and its contractors appear to be banking on.
As DuBois told DC Bureau, “The Defense Department is huge. It has a lot of money. It has enormous power in terms of what the Congress is willing to appropriate to it. If you’re in EPA you can rhetorically say, ‘My god, all we get are the crumbs and DOD gets the wedding cake.’”