While the world was coping with the deadly COVID-19 crisis, and the streets of Pasadena, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, D.C., and other major American cities were awash in sometimes violent rebellion over the deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans at the hands of police, the Trump administration was quietly diluting environmental laws regulating the toxic rocket fuel oxidizer perchlorate, utilized extensively by scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) beginning in the 1950s and since then polluting Pasadena and Altadena drinking water wells.
In fact, largely because of the dumping of perchlorate and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that’s occurred in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, the 176-acre JPL campus, managed for NASA by Caltech, as well as parts of the Arroyo Seco and Hahamongna Watershed Park have been designated as parts of an EPA Superfund cleanup that’s been ongoing since 1992.
On June 18, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler issued the agency’s position on perchlorate, which has ultimately been deemed a non-contaminant under existing law.
“Considering the best available science and the proactive steps that EPA, states, and public water systems have taken to reduce perchlorate levels, the agency has determined that perchlorate does not meet the criteria for regulation as a drinking water contaminant under the SDWA (Safe Drinking Water Act). Therefore, the agency is withdrawing the 2011 regulatory determination and is making a final determination to not issue a national regulation for perchlorate at this time,” the agency wrote in a press release announcing the action.
“Today’s decision is built on science and local success stories and fulfills President Trump’s promise to pare back burdensome ‘one-size-fits-all’ overregulation for the American people,” Wheeler is quoted saying in the notice. “State and local water systems are effectively and efficiently managing levels of perchlorate. Our state partners deserve credit for their leadership on protecting public health in their communities, not unnecessary federal intervention.”
Critics of the move were just as passionate in their opposition.
“Today’s decision is illegal, unscientific and unconscionable,” Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director for health at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), is quoted telling The New York Times.
“The Environmental Protection Agency is threatening the health of pregnant moms and young children with toxic chemicals in their drinking water at levels that literally can cause loss of I.Q. points. Is this what the Environmental Protection Agency has come to?” Olson asked.
For Pasadena, where local water wells are still being scoured of perchlorate and VOC contamination, the question is what will happen now, after years of effort to eradicate the toxin from local wells, which are still ongoing at two Pasadena drinking water wells.
“The short answer is the state of California establishes its own regulations, and that’s what we comply with,” said Mitchell Dion, assistant general manager for water delivery with the city Water and Power Department.
“The action the EPA took has little direct bearing on California because California has primacy, so regulations in California can always be more stringent, not less stringent,” Dion said.
This latest chapter in the story of perchlorate has received little if any notice in local media outlets.
According to articles appearing in May and June in The New York Times, and to a lesser degree The Washington Post, the Trump administration had been looking to make changes to the classification of the widely used chemical, which if ingested in high enough doses affects the thyroid gland’s ability to produce iodine and is believed to cause fetal and infant brain damage. Even going a short period without growth-inducing thyroid hormones could result in a fetus developing learning and behavioral disabilities, impaired gait, impaired hearing and vision, mental retardation, and possibly even autism, according to a report at cleanwateraction.org.
Occurring naturally in parts of the Southwest U.S., and found as a byproduct in hypochlorite solutions used for treating drinking water and nitrate salts used to produce fertilizers, perchlorate is primarily used in solid rocket propellants, munitions, fireworks, car airbag launch ignitions, matches, and signal flares, according to the EPA.
After taking office in 2001, President George W. Bush’s EPA refused to regulate the substrance. Ten years later, no sooner did the Obama administration announce plans to regulate perchlorate as a dangerous substance than military contractors Aerojet Rocketdyne, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman formed the Perchlorate Study Group, a coalition that includes Utah-based American Pacific Corp., makers of oxidizers such as perchlorate. The group has been lobbying for more lenient treatment since then, and they’ve apparently persuaded the Trump administration to refuse to assign even a dangerous level of exposure, as well as withdraw the agency’s previous contention under Obama that perchlorate negatively affects between five and 16 million people.
Because the Obama administration ultimately took no action in regulating perchlorate, the NRDC sued the agency in 2018, The New York Times reported. The EPA agreed to a court settlement requiring a final standard be placed on perchlorate, which was due by June.
Prior to deregulation, the federal Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) was 15 micrograms per liter. MCLG are defined by the EPA and refer to contaminant levels in drinking water up to which no health risks are known or expected, according to the agency. The EPA now contends “perchlorate does not occur with a frequency at levels of public health concern” in public water systems, according to recent EPA statements and NY Times reports.
In California, the maximum contaminant level for perchlorate is six parts per billion, or 6 ppb, according to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control website.
“EPA now says that, based on its ‘re-analysis’ of the 15-year-old testing (and some data from California and Massachusetts since those states adopted standards), perchlorate isn’t found in enough water systems at a level above EPA’s conveniently high new ‘safe’ levels to trigger a need to regulate. The agency did not analyze how many water systems across the country exceed a lower threshold such as 2 to 6 ppb, though its previous data set would suggest that millions of Americans may be unknowingly drinking water exceeding those levels,” Olson of the NRDC noted.
“The EPA’s cynical decision to ignore the science that, as the American Academy of Pediatrics has said, dictates a strong perchlorate standard to protect vulnerable kids, is a deeply disturbing violation of the agency’s mission. It must be reversed,” Olson wrote.
Several state and Tribal government experts have also urged a stricter standard.
“This is all of a piece,” Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland, told The New York Times.
“You can draw a line between denial of science on climate change, denial of science on coronavirus, and denial of science in the drinking water context. It’s all the same issue,” Steinzor said. “They’re saying ‘We don’t care what the research says.’”