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Chemical Polluted Waters In Southwest

Jan 6, 2003 | AP

A Cold War-era chemical used to fuel missiles and the rockets that put man on the moon has left a legacy of contamination across the Southwest, where the toxin pinches the parched region's already constricted supply of drinking water.

The chemical, called perchlorate, pollutes much of the lower Colorado River and has forced hundreds of wells in California to close during the last six years. More close almost weekly, prompting water officials to consider rationing and bottled water to cover anticipated shortfalls.

California and federal officials are debating how much risk perchlorate poses when ingested, a decision partly delayed by lawsuits filed by defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin Corp. The companies are concerned they could be on the hook for potentially billions in cleanup costs.

Meanwhile, thousands have sued the companies that once made, tested or handled perchlorate, alleging years of drinking water laced with the rocket fuel ingredient have caused a litany of cancers and other illnesses.

Among them is Adrienne Wise-Tates, for whom the list includes tumors of the brain and ovaries, cancerous cells found when she had a goiter removed, multiple cysts in her breasts and, most recently, an unknown mass in her left kidney.

The 46-year-old single mother of three blames her maladies on the perchlorate-tainted water she grew up drinking in Redlands. There, 70 miles east of Los Angeles, nearly 1,000 people are suing Lockheed Martin over perchlorate pollution associated with a former rocket engine testing facility.

"I played in the water, drank the water, everything. The normal things a child does," Wise-Tates said. "Since it was so much in this area, in the water, that's what I attribute it to."

Lockheed spokeswoman Gail Rymer said the company is "vigorously" defending itself against claims related to the site, which closed in the 1970s.

"We do not feel that anyone was harmed or has been made ill as a result of our operations at the former Lockheed Propulsion Co. site," Rymer said.

The oxygen-rich salt interferes with how the body uptakes iodide into the thyroid and can disrupt how the gland regulates metabolism. It's unclear how much is dangerous.

Perchlorate became a widespread concern in 1997, when scientists learned to detect it in even minute concentrations in ground water.

"We need to be able to say to people that this is a problem, it is a big problem. It is moving rapidly. It is in 22 states and we need to address it," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "We don't need to panic, but we need to do it in a way that's cost-effective and makes sense."

Initially, it was thought perchlorate would be restricted to where rocket fuel was made or used. It's since been tied to plants that made munitions, fireworks and even the charges that deploy airbags.

"Anything that explodes seems to be associated with perchlorate," said David Spath, chief of the division of drinking water and environmental management for the California Department of Health Services.

The single largest source of contamination is a former Kerr-McGee Corp. rocket fuel plant outside Las Vegas, Nev.

For decades, waste water containing perchlorate was left to seep into the ground, a company official said.

"There were probably 20-plus years when we didn't have the environmental awareness we have today," said Pat Corbett, the former plant manager who is now the company's environmental technology director.

The site still leaches as much as 900 pounds of perchlorate a day into a wash that drains into the Colorado River, where water piles up behind Hoover Dam.

The river is a main water source for 20 million people across the Southwest, including much of Arizona, California and Nevada.

Across the nation, millions more eat winter lettuce and other vegetables grown with Colorado River water. What risk they pose is unknown.

"It's really one of the most massive pollution problems the water industry has ever seen," said Timothy Brick, a member of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Across California, nearly 300 wells are contaminated. Most are in Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where dozens of aerospace factories hummed throughout the Cold War.

Since 2000, perchlorate has closed five of the 15 wells in Rialto, 60 miles east of Los Angeles. The closures cut off nearly half the water supply of its 95,000 residents, public works director Bradley Baxter said.

The working class city could lose even more to a freeway project that requires water to control dust kicked up by construction.

"We have a crisis that will come probably to a head this summer and we're going to have to make a decision to either build that freeway or to provide our residents potable water," Baxter said.

At least 21 other states also report contamination, including New York, where naturally perchlorate-rich fertilizer imported from Chile has contaminated wells on Long Island, forcing some to close. Most of the nation's perchlorate pollution stems from defense industry sites, however.

That's why it's become such a massive potential public health issue in California, home to numerous military bases and aerospace companies.

Andrew Pennington said he had a thyroid tumor removed in 1990, a year after leaving Mather Air Force Base, outside Sacramento, where he had spent two years as a flight navigator.

Wells in the area, including one just feet from his former home, have some of the highest perchlorate levels in the state. Pennington, 41, said he suspects a link, but that further study is needed.

"I am not going to say it caused something or didn't until I see scientific evidence to that effect," said Pennington, now a Texas college instructor but still a major in the Air Force reserves. "But I was probably more exposed to it than anyone else I know of and I definitely did develop thyroid cancer."

Both California and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are working to set drinking water standards for perchlorate.

California has proposed a safe level of two to six parts per billion and hopes to set the nation's first standard by 2004.

Lockheed Martin and Kerr-McGee recently forced California to submit its draft recommendation to further outside review, including by industry-picked experts, delaying the process by several months.

The EPA's draft proposal is stricter: one part per billion. Meeting the standards will be difficult because even the Colorado River contains perchlorate at levels up to 9 ppb.

The more stringent the standards turn out to be, the more companies would have to pay in cleanup costs when linked to polluted sites.

"Those levels determine how much treatment is necessary. It's a cost issue," Lockheed's Rymer said.

In Pasadena, NASA will pay $30 million for a plant to remove the pollution associated with its Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA and city officials said. Nationwide, cleanup estimates run in the billions of dollars.

It will take years to discover the extent of perchlorate contamination nationwide. Cleanup will take decades more, to the consternation of people like Wise-Tates.

"I would just hope no one else has to go through this, but I am sure they will, until they find some way to clean up the water," she said.

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