EPA Takes Big Step to Regulate the Contaminant Perchlorate, But Moves Too Slowly

Today's announcement by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that EPA will move toward regulating perchlorate, reversing a decision by the George W. Bush Administration, is bittersweet. It’s great that EPA has recognized the need to regulate, but the agency has adopted such a leisurely timeline that the entire effort could end up being undercut.

The agency said: "EPA intends to publish the proposed regulation and analyses for public review and comment within 24 months. EPA will consider the public comments and expects to promulgate a final regulation within 18 months of the proposal."

The Bush Administration had shut down EPA efforts to deal with this hazard, despite ample evidence of the danger. So it's obviously welcome news that the Obama EPA has made confronting the problem its official policy. But today's announcement is quite limited. EPA is actually saying that a regulation wouldn't be finalized until after 2012, and that gives scant comfort.

I can find no excuse for the long trajectory of behind-the-scenes consultations and hand-wringing that sets the stage for such long delay on this crucial issue.

Regulating perchlorate should not be seen as a long-term, we’ll-get-around-to-it goal, but an urgent public health priority. Perchlorate inhibits the uptake of iodide into the thyroid, causing the malfunction of the endocrine system that modulates normal neurological development.  Babies in utero don’t have any iodide in their system, and must get it from their mothers. If their mothers also have iodide deficiencies, and then are exposed to perchlorate in drinking water or such foods as lettuce, babies can get into real trouble, suffering irreversible neurological damage. About 15 percent of women of childbearing age, have iodide deficiencies that could harm the normal development of their unborn children. Perchlorate contamination of drinking water makes that potential damage far more likely, and as many as 20 million people may well have unacceptable levels of the chemical in their drinking water.

Perchlorate is a component of rocket fuel and the U.S. military and its contractors have long lobbied against EPA setting any standard to protect the public. Years after drinking water problems from perchlorate were revealed, the Pentagon continues its fight.

Rather than simply declaring its intentions and laying out such a long timeline, EPA should have issued a proposed rule and then gone forward with on the rulemaking process on the record, with a public docket, and the Pentagon's complaints opened to scrutiny. This process ought to have moved out from behind closed doors months ago, but now it appears we’ll have no actual results until after the end of the President’s first term.

We’ll never know what happened to this project behind closed doors within the agency or at the White House. It’s possible that EPA is so starved of resources that it could not get the job done right, in a timely way, on perchlorate. That’s a terribly unfortunate shame if true, and it is why we hope President Obama’s promises to freeze discretionary spending for five years, much less House Republicans’ far more radical notions about cutting government beyond the bone, do not extend to public health problems like this one. 

We’ve known about the hazards of perchlorate for a decade, and action is long overdue. If the Obama Administration wants to solidify its record as among the most progressive administrations on environmental issues in history, it needs to step up its pace, not make promises it may not be able to keep.  We know EPA feels like it is a bunker taking relentless incoming missiles day and night. But the American people need it to do its job, and not be cowed by its most vituperative critics.

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