Report raises questions about EPA’s 2008 perchlorate decision

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The Bush White House played a role in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s controversial 2008 decision not to regulatethe drinking water contaminant perchlorate, according to a congressional watchdog agency.

In a report released Tuesday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office concludes that the EPA deviated from its customary scientific analysis in reaching the decision and says that ‘according to key EPA scientists, the agency mischaracterized important scientific findings on the sensitivity of various age groups to perchlorate exposure.’


The nonpartisan GAO found that the Office of Management and Budget, which reports directly to the president, edited the 2008 determination. ‘Overall, the changes EPA made in response to OMB’s extensive comments through the external review process downplayed the health risks of exposure to perchlorate and presented EPA’s conclusions with greater certainty than key EPA scientists stated they were comfortable supporting,’ the report states.

Perchlorate, a toxic ingredient in rocket fuel and fireworks, has been found in water and soil in most states but is a particular problem in California, home to large defense installations and a once thriving aerospace industry. When ingested through water and food, the chemical can interfere with the functioning of the thyroid gland and has been linked to developmental problems in fetuses and infants.

California has set state limits on the pollutant, but the EPA three years ago declined to impose federal curbs. The Obama administration reversed that decision in February, announcing that the agency will issue standards for perchlorate and more than a dozen other drinking water contaminants within the next two years.

The GAO noted that the move is the first time since 1996 that EPA has recommended regulation of additional drinking water contaminants.

Investigators also cited shortcomings in the data the agency has previously used in reviewing other pollutants. ‘EPA made decisions on nine contaminants relying on tests that were not sensitive enough to detect them at the agency’s health risk benchmarks,’ they found.

In a written response, EPA officials said the agency is ‘committed to improvement’ and pointed to its efforts to step up monitoring and set perchlorate standards. But it agreed with only two of the GAO’s 17 policy recommendations.


‘GAO’s investigation addresses the stunning fact that EPA has not made a determination to regulate any new drinking water contaminants, with one recent exception, in well over a decade,’ said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. ‘This failure has occurred despite mounting evidence of threats to public health from unregulated drinking water contaminants.’


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-- Bettina Boxall