U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced legislation Monday that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to quickly develop new public health standards for perchlorate, a toxic rocket-fuel component that has infiltrated water supplies used by about 20 million people in many parts of the country.
The lower half of the Colorado River, which furnishes drinking water to California, Nevada and Arizona, is tainted with perchlorate from a former Nevada rocket-fuel factory.
Perchlorate can affect the thyroid and has been linked by government scientists to numerous health problems, including cancer.
The EPA is working to develop new health guidelines for perchlorate, but not fast enough, according to some environmental groups and municipal water agencies. Boxer's bill calls for the EPA to put standards in place by next year -- much sooner than the agency's current plans.
"Perchlorate is a clear and present danger to California's public health," said Boxer (D-Calif.), who noted that under its current timetable, the earliest the EPA could set new standards is 2006. "We can't wait ... to address this threat. EPA needs to get moving and protect our drinking water sooner rather than later."
However, EPA officials said Monday that they are working as quickly as possible to establish new standards for perchlorate, while adhering to all the rules they must follow under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The EPA maintains it has yet to determine the extent of perchlorate pollution around the country, a process that will likely take until 2007 or 2008, officials said.
"Trying to develop a final standard in 2004 would not be technically feasible because we do not have all the data we need to do a final national rule-making," said Ephraim King, the head of the EPA's Standards and Risk Management Division. "It will take longer than that."
The level at which perchlorate poses a health risk is the subject of intense controversy. Scientists at the EPA and in California's Office of Environmental Health Assessment, which is also working to develop perchlorate regulations, now believe the contaminant may pose health risks even at trace amounts, particularly for pregnant women and young children.
That claim is strongly disputed by defense contractors and the Pentagon, which together are responsible for the bulk of perchlorate contamination across the country. They contend that the contaminant is dangerous only in higher concentrations.