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Track Rocket Propellant Cleanup, GAO Says

on perchlorate

(ENS) WASHINGTON -- A system to track sampling and cleanup results for the chemical perchlorate should be established, Congressional investigators recommend after an 18 month long study, released on Tuesday. Perchlorate, a primary ingredient in rocket propellant, is believed to affect thyroid functioning.

The General Accountability Office (GAO) recommends that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) work with federal agencies and the states to establish a structure to track and monitor perchlorate detections and cleanup efforts.

Perchlorate has been used for decades in the manufacture and firing of rockets and missiles. Other uses include fireworks, flares, and explosives. Perchlorate has been found in drinking water, groundwater, surface water, and soil in the United States.

Cleanup is planned or under way at 51 of the almost 400 perchlorate contaminated sites identified to date, the GAO said in its report to the chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and Hazardous Materials, House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Paul Gillmor, an Ohio Republican.

Federal and state agencies are not required to routinely report perchlorate findings to the EPA, and the EPA does not centrally track or monitor perchlorate detections or the status of cleanup, the GAO said. "As a result, a greater number of contaminated sites than we reported may already exist."

Perchlorate contamination has been found in water and soil in concentration levels ranging from a minimum reporting level of four parts per billion to "millions of parts per billion," the GAO said.

There have been confirmed perchlorate releases in at least 25 states. More than one-half of all sites were in California and Texas, and sites in Arkansas, California, Texas, Nevada, and Utah had some of the highest concentration levels.

Most of the nearly 400 sites had lower levels of contamination -- roughly two-thirds had concentration levels at or below the EPA's provisional cleanup standard of 18 parts per billion, the GAO said.

Many of the contaminated sites are on military bases, and some of those sites are not known to the EPA, investigators found.

The EPA agreed with the report's findings but the Department of Defense did not, the GAO states. Neither agency agreed with the recommendation that a system to track sampling and cleanup results is needed.

The investigators said, "GAO believes its findings are sound; further, DOD's citation of sites not on EPA's list underscores the need for this recommendation."

The chemical has been "potentially associated with cancer of the follicular thyroid cells," the EPA found in a 1999 study. But other federal government studies, conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances, have found perchlorate "is not specific for producing thyroid dysfunction" or blood abnormalities.

Since 1998, the EPA and Department of Defense have sponsored a number of perchlorate health risk studies using a variety of research methods. The GAO reviewed 90 of these studies that examined whether and how perchlorate affected the thyroid. "About one-quarter concluded that perchlorate had an adverse effect," the investigators said.

The National Academy of Sciences reviewed studies of perchlorate's health effects and reported in January 2005 that certain levels of exposure may not adversely affect healthy adults but recommended more studies be conducted on the effects of perchlorate exposure in children and pregnant women.

Although there is no specific federal requirement to clean up perchlorate, the EPA and state agencies have used broad authorities under various environmental laws and regulations, as well as state laws and action levels, to sample and clean up perchlorate. They have sometimes required the sampling and cleanup of perchlorate by responsible parties.

Under certain federal and state environmental laws, private industry may be required to sample for perchlorate.

According to the EPA and state officials, private industry and public water suppliers have generally complied with regulations requiring sampling and agency requests to sample.

The Department of Defense has sampled and cleaned up perchlorate in some locations when required by laws and regulations, but the department has been reluctant to sample on or near active installations under other circumstances," the GAO reports.

Erik Olson, senior attorney in the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), says, "The GAO report shows how the Pentagon and its defense contractors are largely responsible for the widespread perchlorate pollution of our drinking water."

"The findings illustrate why it's a bad idea for Congress to grant the Pentagon's wish to exempt the Defense Department from federal laws that safeguard our health and environment," Olson said. "As the nation's biggest polluter, the Defense Department shouldn't get off the hook when it comes to cleaning up its toxic mess.

Olson criticizes the EPA for failing to protect the public from perchlorate pollution in drinking water.

"The EPA has known for at least 20 years that perchlorate contaminates drinking water supplies," Olson said. "Despite this, and despite the fact that there are hundreds of sites across the country polluted with this rocket fuel, the agency has yet to establish a safe drinking water standard for perchlorate."

"Because EPA has fallen down on the job, we're encouraging states and local governments to act now to set safe levels for perchlorate in drinking water," said Olson.

EPA has established an official reference dose for perchlorate which is consistent with the recommended reference dose included in the National Academy of Science's January 2005 report. The EPA's official reference dose is set at 0.0007 mg/kg/day of perchlorate. The reference dose is a preliminary estimate of a protective health level and is not a drinking water standard.

In January 2005, the Academy of Science reported on the potential health effects of perchlorate and concluded that a total exposure level from all sources, higher than one part per billion in drinking water, assuming that all exposure came from drinking water, may not adversely affect a healthy adult.

© 2005 Environment News Service and reprinted by special permission

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Albion Monitor June 23, 2005 (

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