GAO Report Confirms That Politics, Not Science, Drove Bush EPA Decision Not To Regulate Rocket Fuel in Drinking Water

Five months ago, we heralded the Obama Administration’s decision to regulate perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel, in drinking water. Up until then, perchlorate had been contaminating drinking water all around the country without any sign of relief. The science about the negative health effects associated with exposure to perchlorate – especially for pregnant women and infants – was disturbing. As my colleague Dr. Gina Solomon explained to Congress:

Perchlorate is a powerful inhibitor of the normal uptake of iodine into the thyroid gland,as well as normal transport of iodine across the placenta and into the lactating mammary gland. Inhibition of iodine uptake can cause decreased production of thyroid hormones.

In the developing fetus and infant, adequate levels of thyroid hormones are necessary for normal brain development. Subtle alterations of thyroid hormones during pregnancy – even within the normal range – have been associated with decreased intellectual and learning capacity in childhood.

Despite this concern, NRDC research showed that the Bush Administration was working tirelessly to foreclose EPA’s ability to regulate perchlorate in drinking water.

Yesterday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, published a report (available here) that confirms that the process used by the Bush era EPA to decide not to regulate perchlorate was “atypical,” as shown by a string of highly unusual steps leading up to its decision not to regulate perchlorate.

First, in a reversal of agency procedure, rather than rely on EPA staff with relevant expertise to handle the analysis, the EPA Office of Water Assistant Administrator directed his staff to draft its decision to not regulate perchlorate based on what was “agreed to” by a workgroup consisting of senior officials from agencies outside of EPA, including the Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Management and  Budget (OMB).

Second, EPA avoided scientific input from its own Integrated Risk Information System, which it had for all other regulatory decisions on drinking water.

Third, EPA mischaracterized important scientific findings to support the “agreed-upon” decision of the work group. In fact, EPA scientists said that the Agency’s failure to present certain information was a “serious omission” and that the use of the scientific results in the determination was “seriously flawed and misleading.”

Finally, OMB’s role in editing the wording of EPA’s regulatory determination downplayed the health risks from perchlorate exposure.

All told, industry and its allies in the Bush Administration were able to prevent EPA from getting perchlorate out of our drinking for far too long. The Obama EPA made the right decision to regulate perchlorate, but now it must finish its work and set a health-protective level for drinking water. We cannot allow politics to delay any more protecting us and especially our children from this dangerous contaminant.

About the Authors

Mae Wu

Senior Attorney, Health program

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