Even as they cheer U.S. EPA's first steps toward a drinking water standard for perchlorate, environmental and public health groups are warily predicting Pentagon and industry resistance to proposed limits on the rocket fuel chemical during a behind-the-scenes federal review process.
EPA sent an initial determination on perchlorate to reviewers at the White House budget office last Wednesday, more than a year after first seeking input on revisiting the George W. Bush administration's refusal to regulate its presence in drinking water. The agency's move was widely acknowledged as a reversal of that 2008 decision, setting the stage for new curbs on a contaminant that can impede thyroid functioning at high doses -- particularly among children and pregnant women.
But EPA's initial foray toward using its Safe Drinking Water Act authority against perchlorate is only the first step in a lengthy process that begins at the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), an arm of the Office of Management and Budget where federal agencies and private-sector interests weigh in on the economic impact of potential new rules.
In the case of perchlorate, commonly used by the Pentagon and military contractors, that OIRA review process could be dominated by strong pushback against EPA action. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Executive Director Jeff Ruch, assessing the likelihood of a tough battle ahead, tempered his praise for the EPA announcement with a warning of "heavy Pentagon and polluter lobbying" to come.
"What EPA has announced is a decision to move timidly and incrementally forward," Ruch said in an interview. "In the ensuing years, there will be lots of opportunities for the proposal to be waylaid or diluted."
University of Maryland law professor Rena Steinzor, who advocates for regulatory transparency as the chief of the nonprofit Center for Progressive Reform, echoed that combination of elation and concern.
While she greeted EPA's movement on perchlorate with "a big round of applause," Steinzor said she would view OIRA review of the chemical with "a sense of foreboding ... because EPA has encountered such vehement resistance from federal polluters," which could face high cleanup bills. Perchlorate contamination is estimated to be present in the drinking water of at least 35 states and the District of Columbia.
In fact, reconciling the chemical's pervasiveness with its threat to sensitive populations is a major part of the challenge facing green groups that have long pushed for perchlorate limits. Its ability to throw off the thyroid's iodine uptake presents a particularly high risk for children with hypothyrotic mothers, leading the EPA inspector general to suggest iodide-rich prenatal vitamins as an alternative to regulation in a controversial April report on perchlorate (Greenwire, April 21).
Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, described the risk posed by perchlorate as trickier to communicate than the risks of lead or mercury, which pose a marked threat to human health in even the smallest of doses. "We have to really understand the science well and be really honest, but also public, about where we see the risks really are," she said.
The aerospace and defense industries have warned against setting a drinking water standard for perchlorate to replace EPA's current interim health advisory of 15 parts per billion for vulnerable groups, noting that smaller amounts of the chemical are present in organic vegetables as well as breast milk.
"Media-generated 'health scares' based on misconceptions of new studies or unclear understanding of regulatory objectives usually create a false perception of risk," industry representatives warned in a document prepared for a June 2009 White House meeting on perchlorate.
In a statement on the perchlorate decisionmaking process, EPA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara declined to confirm that the agency had decided to recommend a drinking water standard. The agency, she said "is in the process of making a final decision ... and is in the middle of an inter-agency review process."
"Under the previous administration, EPA made a preliminary decision not to regulate perchlorate," she continued. "Last year, Administrator Jackson directed EPA to re-evaluate the science on perchlorate and to take into consideration the impacts on the most vulnerable populations, infants and young children. As soon the agency reaches a final decision, we will release it to the public."