25 May 2003
in rocket fuel spurs public health debate
Bobby Caina Calvan
CORDOVA, Calif. -- A year after moving here in 1970, Doris Voetsch
became so sluggish she had to will herself out of bed each morning.
Doctors diagnosed her with a thyroid ailment. Years later, they
found malignant lumps in her breast, and then they removed a noncancerous
1979, one of her daughters began experiencing thyroid problems,
and another daughter soon developed a similar condition. Her husband,
Greg, had his cancerous thyroid gland removed, and a grandson, now
18, was born with severe learning disabilities that the Voetsches
struggled to explain.
waste from a nearby missile factory began receiving heightened scrutiny
from state and federal regulators, the Voetsches started to wonder
whether their woes were linked to perchlorate, an ingredient found
in rocket fuel that may stunt brain development in newborns and
lead to thyroid cancer.
is at the center of a dispute between environmentalists and the
defense industry, which remains skeptical about the risk the chemical
poses to public health.
don't care what anybody says. I'm convinced that we drank ourselves
to bad health here,'' said Greg Voetsch, a 69-year-old retired landscaper.
''Everybody was drinking this stuff.''
in the 1950s, Aerojet, a defense contractor, discarded rocket fuel
and other chemicals in unlined pits and trenches at its Rancho Cordova
weapons plant, 15 miles northeast of Sacramento. The resulting toxic
sludge -- byproducts of Cold War weapons such as the Minuteman,
Trident, and Polaris missiles -- seeped into the groundwater that
flows into the faucets of nearby homes.
are pressing for immediate regulation and cleanup of sites contaminated
by perchlorate. Not only is it already in the drinking water of
millions of people in California and elsewhere, they warn, but perchlorate
could also affect millions more who buy fruits and vegetables from
farms irrigated with contaminated water.
while regulators debate the scientific research on perchlorate,
increasing numbers of communities across the country are discovering
contamination in their own backyards.
the past few years, California realized how widespread the problem
is. The rest of the country is now only waking up'' to the problem,
said Bill Walker, the California director of the Environmental Working
Group, which has been advocating for state and federal regulations.
all, 43 states have had facilities that used the chemical to manufacture
rocket boosters, road flares, fireworks, automobile air bags, and
other products. The military and its weapons contractors account
for 90 percent of the perchlorate used in this country.
least 25 states, including Massachusetts, have some perchlorate
contamination in surface water and groundwater, according to the
Environmental Protection Agency. But the EPA is years away from
setting a water-quality standard for perchlorate -- hindered in
part, environmentalists contend, by the Defense Department's opposition
to a standard that could result in billions of dollars in cleanups.
the military is performing some cleanup -- including EPA-mandated
groundwater treatment at the Massachusetts Military Reservation
in Bourne because of perchlorate and other toxins -- the Pentagon
is also seeking legislation that would exempt it from many environmental
rules. The Pentagon said current environmental regulations interfere
with military readiness, but environmentalists said the military
is looking for a way out of expensive environmental cleanup.
has never been any intent to change in any way through this legislation
the Department of Defense's obligation to clean up the military
lands under its control,'' the Pentagon said in a written statement.
''Until a federal or state cleanup standard is determined, the department
will continue to work directly with state and local officials on
the best strategies to safeguard public water supplies.''
EPA doesn't expect to set a standard until 2007. Without one, the
agency does not have an enforceable threshold to order cleanups.
For now, the agency is using a ''reference dose'' of one part per
billion, which it believes is a safe concentration in drinking water.
The Department of Defense, citing a 2002 study funded by the defense
industry, favors a standard of 200 parts per billion.
help settle the issue, the EPA in March sent its draft findings
to the National Academy of Sciences for review. The evaluation is
expected to take several months. ''When we have a particularly controversial
chemical, that wouldn't be an entirely unreasonable step,'' said
Kevin Mayer, the EPA's national perchlorate coordinator. ''We want
to get the science right.''
spokesman Mark Merchant acknowledged that ''there is a lot of political
jockeying in Washington between the military and the EPA'' about
perchlorate standards in drinking water.
Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, introduced a bill in March
that would force the EPA to establish a perchlorate standard by
July 2004. A related Boxer ''right-to-know'' bill introduced last
month would catalog all facilities that have handled large amounts
of perchlorate since 1950 and would establish a Perchlorate Cleanup
and Pollution Prevention Fund, partly supported by fines levied
against polluters. Supporters of both bills concede it is unlikely
either will become law in this Congress.
proposals may fare better in the California Legislature, where a
right-to-know bill has also been introduced. In January, California
is expected to be among the first to establish an enforceable perchlorate
standard. The state is proposing a concentration level of between
two and six parts per billion.
least 84 of the state's water systems have detected perchlorate
in varying levels. San Bernardino County, in Southern California,
found perchlorate levels in some wells as high as 820 parts per
billion. Dozens of wells across the state have been shut down because
of high levels of perchlorate.Waste from a perchlorate manufacturing
plant near Hoover Dam in Nevada continues to flow into Lake Mead
and the lower Colorado River, the source of drinking water for more
than 15 million people in Southern California, Nevada, and Arizona.
That water is also used to irrigate millions of acres of farmland
in California's Imperial Valley. High concentrations of perchlorate
were found in lettuce sold in supermarkets nationwide, according
to a study by the Environmental Working Group. The effects of perchlorate
on people have been known for at least a half-century. Perchlorate
blocks the ability of the thyroid gland to absorb iodide, a necessary
nutrient for production of hormones the body uses to stimulate physical
and mental activity.
suggest that changes in the levels of thyroid hormones could result
in tumors. In fetuses and newborns, the absence of these hormones
could harm brain development and lead to mental retardation, attention-deficit
syndrome, and impaired vision, hearing, and speech. At least two
lawsuits have been filed in California by hundreds of people who
blame perchlorate for their health ailments. Both lawsuits center
on contamination from weapon facilities, one operated by Lockheed
Martin in Redlands, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, and the other
by Aerojet in Rancho Cordova. Aerojet is working to contain a wide
underground plume of the chemical that has shuttered a dozen wells
used for drinking water, some with perchlorate concentrations as
high as 400 parts per billion. Aerojet has spent nearly $35 million
on perchlorate cleanup -- and another $150 million for removal of
other chemicals associated with a Superfund cleanup program ordered
at its Rancho Cordova site 20 years ago.
1953, Aerojet has been producing weaponry for the Defense Department
in Rancho Cordova, employing as many as 22,000 employees at the
height of the Cold War.
the time, we thought we were doing the right thing,'' said Linda
Cutler, a spokeswoman for GenCorp, Aerojet's parent company. ''There
was never any intention on Aerojet's part to pollute the water.''