Polluters attempt to water down state and federal standards for perchlorate contamination

By Michael Collins

Pasadena Weekly – February 12, 2004

Trickles of HopeUnder the shadow of a $2 million claim for damages filed by the city of Pasadena in January over the cost of lost water resources due to the perchlorate contamination of a number of municipal water wells, federal officials two weeks ago unveiled an ambitious program to rid local water sources of the toxic rocket fuel oxidizer that was first conceived decades ago at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and used ever since to propel America into space.

“NASA [which owns JPL] will make this right because we know we have a problem,” said Steve Slaten, JPL’s remedial project manager.

But while optimistic about NASA’s assumption of responsibility for the toxic messes made in the foothills above Pasadena, Slaten acknowledged nothing is going to happen overnight.

“It will take years, maybe decades, and will add up to tens of millions of dollars before we are through,” Slaten said.

More than 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). Wells registering in at 18 ppb or above are taken out of service for human consumption, and Pasadena has shut down nine of its drinking wells due to perchlorate contamination emanating from JPL.

In addition to its perchlorate cleanup program, the 176-acre space lab near the La Canada-Flintridge border with Pasadena is also in the midst of a $114 million EPA-mandated Superfund cleanup that is presently being carried out by NASA.

As Slaten said, the dual cleanups will be a long time in finishing. But making that wait even longer is both the state and federal government’s failure to set an formal, acceptable level of perchlorate exposure to humans, with the powerful industries that use perchlorate — Lockheed Martin, Aerojet (GenCorp Inc.), Kerr-McGee Chemical and American Pacific Corp. — all aggressively lobbying to have set that standard as low as possible.

For an idea of how widely perchlorate is used today, 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 toward the heavens, and remains a must for Fourth of July festivities, the volatile chemical compound has polluted groundwater and presents a threat to human health throughout California and around the nation.

Aerospace industry advocates and lobbyists downplay the effects of perchlorate on humans, but US Environmental Protection Agency documents make it clear that “Perchlorate disrupts how the thyroid functions,” thereby putting at risk unborn children.

“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,” according to the agency.

The problem, at least for people exposed to any level of perchlorate contamination, is there are no state or federal drinking water standards to gauge exactly the level of potential damage being done.

A provisional action level for reporting to consumers’ perchlorate-tainted water was established by the California Department of Health Services in 1997 and is now 4 ppb.

Legislation passed by in 2002 charged the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, OEHHA, with setting a public health goal for perchlorate by Jan. 1, 2003. Then the state Department of Health Services was to come up with a maximum contaminant level by the first of this year.

But neither deadline was met, due mainly to industry litigation.

OEHHA now has until March 14 to publish the final public health goal for exposure to perchlorate. But the polluters have other plans.

Soon after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took office, a chorus of industry criticism was rained upon the state 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 Web site.

“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, saying state policymakers should allow time to consider the findings of an independent scientific peer review team with the National Academy of Science that’s been working on the perchlorate question in order “to ensure that the best available science is used to adopt a final drinking water standard.”

Another group advocating a delay in OEHHA’s deadline in order to include data gathered in the peer review is the Council on Water Quality, a newly formed industry lobby group 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, and 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 Nev., with around 900 pounds of the toxin from Kerr-McGee leaching into the Colorado River on a daily basis. The result has been an average perchlorate reading of 9 ppb in water used for drinking by millions of Southern Californians.

In stark contrast to the federal government’s findings, the industry-sponsored Council on Water Quality Web site 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.”

Along with clashing with the federal EPA, which is considering lowering its exposure standard from 2 ppb to 1 ppb, this assertion is also at odds with the state EPA, which lowered its action level from 18 ppb to 4 pbb in recognition of perchlorate’s toxicity.

Not only does Council on Water Quality recommend waiting to enact a California perchlorate standard until the National Academy of Science comes back with its review, probably sometime next year, so does the Western Growers Association, which represents 90 percent of the fresh fruit and vegetable growers and shippers in Arizona and California.

“It’s important to California, but we also believe that that standard needs to based on the best available science possible,” said Hank Giclas, the association’s vice president of science and technology.

“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,” Giclas said.

It’s that kind of “information” that has public health advocates and environmentalists concerned. Information obtained by the Pasadena Weekly shows that at least two of the National Academy of Science review panels have worked for at least one of the major perchlorate polluters.

Reviewer “Charles Capen was a paid consultant to Lockheed Martin regarding perchlorate,” according to a Natural Resources Defense Council document. “There is evidence that this consulting relationship was in existence in 1998 and 1999.”

The National Resources Defense Council also learned that another Academy of Science reviewer, Richard Bull, “was a paid consultant to Lockheed Martin in toxic tort litigation regarding perchlorate and other chemical pollution in Redlands.… 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 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 the Defense Department 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 next year.

Last summer, California’s nine regional water quality control boards requested Department of Defense perchlorate data and sampling plans for 71 military compounds and former defense sites across the state.

To date, the water boards have received no information from the Defense Department and may now be required to issue notices and orders to unravel yet another missing piece of the perchlorate puzzle plaguing California.