Polluters attempt to derail state’s new standards for rocket fuel oxidizer in drinking water

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat – February 12, 2004

Dirty water cleaned at Jet Propulsion LaboratoryPasadena has the dubious distinction of being the birthplace of the chemical perchlorate’s use as a rocket fuel oxidizer. Conceived at the NASA-owned Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a single rocket booster for the Space Shuttle contains over 1.3 million pounds of propellant, of which 70 percent is ammonium perchlorate. Potassium perchlorate is also a primary ingredient of safety flares, matches, munitions, explosives, fireworks and airbag detonators. But while perchlorate has propelled America towards the heavens and is a must for 4th of July festivities, it has polluted groundwater and threatens human health throughout the state and nation.

“Perchlorate disrupts how the thyroid functions,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Impairment of the thyroid function in expectant mothers may impact the fetus and newborn and result in effects including changes in behavior, delayed development, and decreased learning capability.”

Over 330 drinking water sources in California have registered concentrations of perchlorate at or above the state’s provisional action-reporting level of four parts per billion (ppb). Wells registering 18 ppb or above are taken out of service for human consumption. Pasadena has shut down nine drinking water wells due to perchlorate contamination emanating from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The 176-acre lab is in the midst of a $114 million EPA-mandated Superfund cleanup being carried out by the space agency.

In late January, under the threat of a possible $2 million lawsuit by the city of Pasadena over the cost of lost water resources, NASA unveiled an ambitious program to rid offsite wells of perchlorate. “NASA will make this right because we know we have a problem,” says Steve Slaten, JPL’s remedial project manager. “It will take years, maybe decades, and will add up to tens of millions of dollars before we are through.”

There is no state or federal drinking water standard for perchlorate. A provisional action level was established by the California Department of Health Services (DHS) in 1997 and is now four ppb. California legislation passed in 2002 charged the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) to set a public health goal (PHG) for perchlorate by January 1, 2003. Then DHS was to come up with a maximum contaminant level (MCL) by the first of this year. Neither deadline was met due to military industry litigation. University-led peer reviews largely affirmed OEHHA’s public health assessment for perchlorate – with the exception of one UC Riverside etymologist who supported a higher, industry-friendly standard. Now OEHHA has until March 14 to publish the final public health goal. But polluters have other plans.

Soon after Gov. Schwarzenegger took office, a chorus of industry criticism was rained down upon Cal-EPA. “There appears to be a rush to judgment to adopt an extremely conservative drinking water standard for perchlorate based on highly questionable science,” said the California Manufacturers and Technology Association in an October 23 posting on its website. “Establishing a permanent drinking water standard of 4 ppb for perchlorate could precipitate a water supply crisis and would have significant adverse economic impacts for California’s agricultural industry, water consumers, the building industry, and others, with correspondent job losses.”

The California Chamber of Commerce agreed and offered a solution: “The Chamber believes that state policymakers should allow time to consider the findings of the independent scientific peer review already under way at the National Academy of Sciences, to ensure that the best available science is used to adopt a final drinking water standard.”

Another group advocating to delay the perchlorate PHG is the Council on Water Quality. The new-borne military industry lobby group is funded by Lockheed Martin, Aerojet (GenCorp Inc.), Kerr-McGee Chemical, and American Pacific Corporation, all major perchlorate polluters. Lockheed Martin’s perchlorate pollution has fouled the groundwater of Rialto in San Bernardino County. Both Aerojet’s Azusa plant, and its Rancho Cordoba site near Sacramento, are Superfund sites heavily polluted with perchlorate. American Pacific Corp. and Kerr-McGee are perchlorate producers in Henderson, Nevada. Around 900 pounds of the toxin leaches from Kerr-McGee into the Colorado River daily, resulting in an average reading of nine ppb of perchlorate in drinking water for millions of Southern California consumers.

The industry-sponsored Council on Water Quality website claims that “perchlorate does no damage to the thyroid gland. High levels of perchlorate (above 200 parts per billion) can temporarily affect the thyroid’s ability to absorb iodide from the bloodstream, but this in itself is harmless (it happens naturally in every human as a result of diet and other factors).” The group goes on to assert, with little scientific evidence, that there is “reason to believe that low levels of perchlorate (below 200 ppb) also have no measurable effect on pregnant women or fetuses. Research is now being conducted to confirm this, with results expected in 2004.” This is at odds with Cal-EPA’s take on the contaminant: It lowered its action level from 18 ppb to four pbb in recognition of perchlorate’s toxicity. The federal EPA is also considering revising its PHG from two ppb to one ppb.

Not only does the industry Council recommend waiting to enact a California perchlorate standard, so does the Western Growers Association, which represents 90 percent of the fresh fruit and vegetable growers and shippers in Arizona and California. “We think that a standard in terms of a public health goal and, ultimately, an MCL is important,” says Hank Giclas, the association’s vice president of science and technology. “But we also believe that that standard needs to be based on the best available science possible. We have faith that the National Academy of Sciences is going to bring to the table some additional information that should be considered by California. While we’re not advocating any kind of a delay, we are advocating the use of every piece of information possible in order to make the best decision for our state.”

It’s that kind of “information” that has public health advocates and environmentalists concerned. Information obtained by CityBeat shows that at least two of the National Academy of Sciences review panelists have worked for major perchlorate polluters. Reviewer “Charles Capen was a paid consultant to Lockheed Martin regarding perchlorate,” according to a Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) document. “There is evidence that this consulting relationship was in existence in 1998 and 1999.” The NRDC also discovered that another Academy reviewer, Richard Bull, “was a paid consultant to Lockheed Martin in toxic tort litigation regarding perchlorate and other chemical pollution in Redlands, California. This litigation is currently ongoing, although Dr. Bull’s current status as a consultant to Lockheed Martin is unknown to us.”

What is also unknown is the status of Department of Defense (DOD) sites across the state that have used perchlorate. Nationwide, defense and aerospace industries buy more than 90 percent of the perchlorate produced annually, or 20 million pounds. Since DOD stopped its practice of open-detonation and burning of perchlorate-contaminated rocket engines as a means of disposal, the department’s inventory of perchlorate-containing propellant is expected to swell to over 164 million pounds by 2005.

Last summer, California’s nine regional water quality control boards requested DOD perchlorate data and sampling plans for the 71 military compounds and former defense sites across the state. To date, the water boards have received no information from DOD and may be required to issue notices and orders to unravel yet another missing piece of the perchlorate puzzle plaguing California.