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EPA Decision On Perchlorate Under Fire

Jul 15, 2003 | Knoxville News Sentinel The Environmental Protection Agency has decided not to regulate perchlorate, a key ingredient in rocket fuel that has been found in the drinking water of 20 million Americans at potentially unsafe levels.

The decision means that it could be a decade or more before the EPA issues a safety standard for perchlorate, a chemical that studies show interferes with normal thyroid function and may cause cancer. The chemical persists indefinitely in the environment.

The agency has also decided not to set a safety standard for certain byproducts of chlorine and other chemicals used to disinfect drinking water that have been linked in numerous studies to birth defects and miscarriages.

Instead, EPA officials decided to leave it up to each state to set safety standards for the byproducts, which are found in the drinking water of 250 million Americans.

The decisions were buried at the bottom of a nine-paragraph press statement the agency released quietly late Friday afternoon and which did not attract the attention of environmentalists and public health advocates until Tuesday.

"This is nothing less than a sneak attack on America's drinking water safety," said Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental group. "These are major regulatory decisions that they essentially were trying to hide from the American public."

Acting EPA Administrator Linda Fisher signed the decisions Friday, her last day on the job. Agency spokesman John Millett denied that the decisions were timed to avoid public scrutiny.

"We wanted to get the (press) release out as soon after the signature as we could," Millett said. "It didn't get in the papers. I don't know why."

The EPA statement does not specifically mention perchlorate, but notes in the last paragraph that the agency has decided not to formulate safety standards for any of the dozens of chemicals and other contaminants found in drinking water that are on its "contaminant candidate list." That list includes perchlorate.

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA is required to formally decide every five years whether to set safety standards for at least five of the chemicals or other contaminants on its contaminant list.

The list is not due to be reviewed again for another three to five years, depending upon an interpretation of the law. The agency could decide before then to set safety standards for perchlorate, but only under "emergency" procedures outlined in the drinking-water law that have never been used, Olson said.

Once a decision is made to set a safety standard for drinking water, it takes the EPA at least two years to issue a regulation and three to five more years before the regulation becomes enforceable, Olson said. That means it's likely to be at least a decade before there is a safety standard for perchlorate, he said.

Millett disagreed with Olson's assessment, saying the agency could act sooner if necessary.

"The time frame at this point is speculation," Millett said. "We're developing a lot of information on perchlorate," including monitoring data from 4,000 water systems around the country. The EPA has also asked the National Academy of Sciences to study the perchlorate issue. A report is expected next year.

Regarding byproducts from drinking-water disinfectants, the EPA has formally proposed a regulation, but critics said it was a hollow proposal that does not contain a specific safety standard or maximum amount for the contaminants that water utilities can use to guide them.

"I think the public health is definitely not being served here," said Jeff Griffiths, a member of the EPA's national drinking-water advisory council and a professor of public health at Tufts University. He points to more than 50 studies that find "very clear evidence" that the byproducts cause cancer and are linked to birth defects and miscarriages.

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