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Senators Turn Up Heat On River Chemical Leak

Officials want info from EPA on lettuce contamination

May 5, 2003 | The Californian

California's senators are pushing the Bush administration to provide more information about perchlorate and help clean up the toxic chemical that has leaked into the Colorado River, contaminating lettuce samples in northern California.

"This week's revelations have suggested that the situation could be even worse than previously thought, as perchlorate may have been absorbed into produce that was irrigated with perchlorate contaminated water," wrote Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and two other Democratic senators.

Boxer, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman and Nevada Sen. Harry Reid sent the letter Thursday to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, demanding the agency provide more information about the health risks of perchlorate, a chemical found in rocket fuel.

Most contaminated sites lie near military bases or defense-contracting facilities that made rocket fuel or explosives.

The issue came to a head last week after the Environmental Working Group found that four out of 22 samples of lettuce purchased in northern California contained perchlorate. The lettuce was grown around Imperial County and Fort Yuma, Ariz., where farms pull water from the Colorado River, which is known to contain perchlorate leaking from a manufacturing plant upstream in Henderson, Nev. The vast majority of lettuce on store shelves now, however, was grown in the Salinas Valley, where growers use local water. Eric Lauritzen, Monterey County agricultural commissioner, said there is no perchlorate threat here.

The EPA had not seen the senators' letter yet and had no comment, spokeswoman Lisa Harrison said Friday. But the agency asked the National Academy of Sciences last month to make a new assessment of the health risks of perchlorate, she said.

"The EPA certainly takes perchlorate contamination very seriously," Harrison said.

Studies have shown perchlorate can cause thyroid problems in adults and also harm the development of children. Perchlorate has been found in drinking water throughout the West, especially in California, where 426 contaminated water sources have been reported, according to the state's Department of Health Services.

Over the past few months, lawmakers have unleashed a torrent of letters to the EPA and Defense Department asking what are safe levels of perchlorate in food and water and what is the military doing to clean up the contaminants.

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