The Environmental Protection Agency formally refused yesterday to set a drinking-water safety standard for perchlorate, a chemical in rocket fuel that has been linked to thyroid problems in pregnant women, newborns and young children.
With little fanfare, the agency issued a news release yesterday afternoon saying that it had "conducted extensive review of scientific data related to the health effects of exposure to perchlorate from drinking water and other sources and found that in more than 99 percent of public drinking water systems, perchlorate was not at levels of public health concern. Therefore, based on the Safe Water Drinking Act criteria, the agency determined there is not a 'meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction' through a national drinking water regulation."
Last month, The Washington Post reported that White House officials had extensively edited the EPA's perchlorate rule-making documentation to remove scientific data highlighting some of the risks associated with the chemical, which has been found in water in 35 states. The Defense Department and Pentagon contractors who face legal liability stemming from rocket fuel contamination have lobbied for six years to avoid a federal drinking-water standard for perchlorate.
In the document released yesterday, the EPA assumes that the maximum safe perchlorate contamination level is 15 times higher than what the agency suggested in 2002.
By that standard, the EPA estimates that more than 16 million Americans are exposed to the chemical at a level that is unsafe.
Congressional Democrats and environmentalists blasted the administration's decision.
"Once again on a Friday, when nobody is paying attention, the Bush administration announces a policy that will harm the American people," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement.
"The Bush EPA's failure to set a standard for perchlorate, a dangerous contaminant found in drinking water, is outrageous, and I will do everything in my power to reverse it. Perchlorate contamination endangers the health of our families, especially pregnant women and children, and to simply allow it to remain in our drinking water is immoral," Boxer said.
The EPA statement said that its regulatory determination will be open for public comment for 30 days and that once the rule is final, the agency will issue a health advisory to guide state and local officials.
Only two states -- Massachusetts and California -- set limits on the allowable amount of perchlorate in drinking water, both at levels far below what the EPA deemed permissible.
"States have the right to establish and enforce drinking water standards, and EPA encourages state-specific situations to be addressed at the local level," the agency document read.
The environmental law firm Earthjustice said it will file suit in federal court on behalf of several environmental organizations to try to overturn the decision.
"EPA's decision has industry's fingerprints all over it," said Earthjustice attorney George Torgun. "Weapons makers will benefit at the expense of millions of Americans drinking water spiked with rocket fuel."
Pentagon spokeswoman Cheryl Irwin did not comment on the ruling's substance but wrote in an e-mail: "This decision is not needed by DoD to undertake a cleanup, as we use EPA's established health risk assessment to conduct our clean-up decisions. DoD has, in fact, been cleaning up perchlorate from military facilities for ten years now."