Polluters are attempting to abort the state’s new standards

By Michael Collins

Ventura County Reporter – January 5, 2004

Space Shuttles ignite 771 tons of perchlorate per launchAmmonium perchlorate was first used at the NASA-owned Jet Propulsion Laboratory, literally as rocket fuel. A 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 also polluted groundwater and now 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 4 parts per billion (ppb). No drinking water wells have tested positive in Ventura County, yet there have been 17 detections of the chemical in Simi Valley groundwater, with the highest hitting 19.6 ppb. Elsewhere in East County, groundwater from Well #1 adjacent to Ahmanson Ranch tested at 28 ppb, the Brandeis-Bardin Bathtub Well #1 tested at 140 and 150 ppb, and the heavily polluted Rocketdyne field laboratory has registered a whopping 48,000 ppb in near-surface water. There is currently no state or federal drinking water standard for perchlorate.

State legislation passed in 2002 required the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) to set a public health goal for perchlorate by January 1, 2003—a date that has come and gone without action, due to litigation on the part of chemical companies. In 1997, the California Department of Health Services (DHS) established a provisional level of 18 parts-per-billion for reporting the presence of the chemical in drinking water to consumers, later to be lowered, and was scheduled to make a final determination by the end of last year, but that deadline was also pushed back due to litigation. Now OEHHA has until Mar. 14 to publish the final public health goal, but again the polluters have other plans.

Soon after Gov. Schwarzenegger took office, a chorus of chemical industry lobbyists begain raining criticism 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 Oct. 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 its own stall tactic: “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 Science, to ensure that the best available science is used to adopt a final drinking water standard.”

The National Acadamy of Science has put together a review panel that includes at least two members who have ties to the 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 NAS 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.”

Another group advocating a delay in OEHHA’s deadline is the Council on Water Quality (CWG). Despite its friendly-sounding name, this new-born industry lobby group is funded by major perchlorate polluters Lockheed Martin, Aerojet (GenCorp Inc.), Kerr-McGee Chemical and American Pacific Corporation. 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 9 ppb of perchlorate in drinking water for millions of Southern California consumers.

The industry-sponsored CWG 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: the state agency recently lowered its action level from 18 ppb to 4 pbb in recognition of perchlorate’s toxicity. The federal EPA is also considering revising its own public health goal from 2 ppb to 1 ppb.

Joining the call for inaction is a lobby representing one of the greatest consumers of polluted Colorado River water: the agricultural industry. The Western Growers Association 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. “It’s important to California, 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.”

The growers and chemical companies might do well to be careful what they wish for. Setting aside bad science from biased panels, the information already available is damning—and the information we don’t have is probably just as troublesome. One of the big unanswered questions regarding perchlorate is the current status of Department of Defense (DOD) sites across the state that have used the chemical. Nationwide, defense and aerospace industries buy more than 90 percent of the perchlorate produced annually—that’s 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.

In Pasadena, at least, JPL has stepped up to the plate. The 176-acre lab is in the midst of a $114 million EPA-mandated Superfund cleanup being carried out by the space agency. Last week, under the shadow of a $2 million lawsuit filed by the City of Pasadena in January 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.”

All the more reason for other agencies and companies to quit whining and start the clean-up process sooner rather than later.