Biden EPA Refuses to Protect Drinking Water from Toxic Perchlorate, Affirms Trump EPA Decision to Leave Millions Exposed to the Chemical
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced it would not regulate perchlorate, a toxic component of rocket fuel associated with brain damage in fetuses and infants, leaving millions of people unknowingly exposed to the chemical through their tap water. The determination affirms a Trump EPA decision to not regulate perchlorate in drinking water.
“The EPA’s failure to protect drinking water from widespread perchlorate contamination is unscientific, unlawful, and unconscionable,” said Erik D. Olson, Senior Strategic Director for Health at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “The Trump EPA gave perchlorate a pass; it was a bad decision then, and it’s a bad decision now. Tap water across America will remain contaminated by this toxic chemical, which threatens the brain development of babies in the womb, infants, and young children at extremely low levels.”
The Trump EPA relied on a deeply flawed analysis to select a “safe” perchlorate level that is 10 or more times higher than health-based limits set by state authorities who have evaluated the same data. EPA then compared levels of perchlorate in tap water to their unjustifiably high “safe” levels and said there are not a lot of systems exceeding safe levels, so there is no need for regulation of perchlorate. The agency relied primarily upon a two decade-old EPA snapshot of perchlorate levels in tap water and ignored other more recent data from USGS and others showing widespread perchlorate contamination. The Biden EPA has now embraced the Trump Administration’s analysis. While the EPA has determined it will not regulate perchlorate, today’s announcement includes a few modest steps the Agency will take, including:
- developing hazardous waste cleanup activities for the open burning and detonation sites where there is serious perchlorate contamination;
- strengthening labeling requirements for sodium hypochlorite which is used to disinfect drinking water which creates perchlorate if stored improperly;
- reviewing and characterizing perchlorate in ambient water after fireworks displays (one of the sources not considered previously by EPA); and
- providing a “web-based toolkit” to advise water systems that have perchlorate contamination.
Perchlorate, widely used in rocket fuel and munitions, and also a component of fireworks and certain other industrial chemicals, is the first unregulated drinking water contaminant for which EPA has proposed a standard in more than 25 years under the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments of 1996. The Defense Department (DOD) and its contractors are major users of perchlorate and there are innumerable DOD facilities where perchlorate pollution has been identified. DOD has opposed strict controls on perchlorate, in an apparent attempt to minimize its cleanup costs.
Since perchlorate is unregulated, there is no federally required monitoring of tap water or requirement to inform a community of contamination. In 2011, the EPA formally decided that perchlorate should be regulated because it is toxic and widespread, with the drinking water of as many as 16 million people contaminated by the chemical. When the Agency failed to develop a standard by the deadline, NRDC sued, and then secured a court-approved consent decree requiring the EPA to issue a drinking water standard for perchlorate by 2019.
“By refusing to establish a standard or water testing requirements, the EPA decision will also keep members of the public in the dark, without even basic information about whether they are being exposed to perchlorate,” said Olson.
NRDC agreed to extend the court-ordered deadline to 2020 when the Trump Administration asked for additional time. Ignoring the court order, the Trump EPA announced in 2020 that it was purporting to rescind the Obama finding that a standard should be set, contending that EPA’s 2008 health advisory for perchlorate in drinking water is far more protective of health than needed. NRDC sued the Trump EPA for refusing to set a standard; that case was held in abeyance with NRDC’s agreement when the Biden Administration said it would review the Trump Administration decision on perchlorate.
History of EPA’s Decisions and Inaction
The agency says that levels of perchlorate in the two states that have regulated it have come down—ignoring that the health effects data these states relied upon to regulate should drive EPA to set a perchlorate standard far lower (in the single digit parts per billion) than the agency now says is safe. The Trump EPA asserted that a level of 56 parts per billion (ppb) would be safe and admitted that a standard at that level would allow certain kids exposed to perchlorate in drinking water at above this level to have an average IQ loss of two points. Some exposed children will suffer a far greater IQ loss.
Massachusetts and California have set their own drinking water standards of 2 ppb to 6 ppb, respectively, because of inaction at the federal level. EPA now cites the reduction in levels of tap water contamination in those two states as a reason that no national standard is needed, refusing to address the widespread contamination in other states. EPA previously had found that as many as 16 million Americans’ tap water contains perchlorate, though it has not required national monitoring since a one-time snapshot done two decades ago.
The Obama EPA found in 2011 that a perchlorate drinking water standard was needed to protect health from the endocrine disrupting chemical, especially that of vulnerable fetuses and young children. This finding triggered a legal duty to regulate perchlorate. When EPA was slow to issue standards after that finding, NRDC sued, and a federal judge hearing the case said that EPA needs “a fire lit under them” to address the urgent problem and issued an order saying EPA had a duty to take action on perchlorate. In response, the agency agreed in a court-approved consent decree to propose a perchlorate drinking water standard by October 2018 and to finalize it by late 2019. EPA sought extensions, citing the need for more study, and secured a June 2020 deadline.
NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.