Energy & Environment

EPA won’t regulate rocket fuel chemical tied to developmental damage: NYT

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will not set a limit on a chemical used in rocket fuel that has been linked with brain damage, The New York Times reported Thursday, though the agency said it has not yet made a final decision on the rule.

The EPA in May 2019 proposed limits for perchlorate in drinking water that critics said were 10 to 50 times higher than what experts recommend.

A court order required the EPA to set a new perchlorate standard by June, but according to the Times, the agency plans to send a rule to the Office of Management and Budget arguing any regulation of the substance is unnecessary.

“The agency has determined that perchlorate does not occur with a frequency and at levels of public health concern, and that regulation of perchlorate does not present a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction for persons served by public water systems,” the draft policy reads, according to the newspaper. 

An earlier proposal from the agency suggested placing the maximum contaminant level at 56 parts per billion (ppb), up from the 15 ppb proposed under the Obama administration.

Some states have their own regulations on perchlorate that fall as low as 2 ppb. The substance is naturally occurring but has also leached into water through military use. It’s commonly found in solid rocket propellants, fireworks, matches and signal flares.

“The science on perchlorate is very clear: It harms infants and the developing fetus,” Olga Naidenko, senior science adviser for children’s environmental health at the Environmental Working Group, said when the EPA unveiled its proposal last May. 

“Perchlorate can cause irreparable damage to both cognitive and physical development. Instead of taking action to lower the levels of this rocket fuel chemical in drinking water, the administration’s plan will endanger the health of future generations of kids.”

The EPA said it has not yet decided how to proceed with regulating perchlorate.

“The agency has not yet made a final decision and any information that is shared or reported now would be premature, inappropriate and would be prejudging the formal rulemaking process. The next step in the process is to send the final rule to the Office of Management and Budget for interagency review. The agency expects to complete this step shortly,” the agency told The Hill by email.

A release from the agency sent just minutes after the Times story was posted argued that partnerships between the agency and states has helped reduce perchlorate levels.

“Because of steps that EPA, states and public water systems have taken to identify, monitor and mitigate perchlorate, the levels have decreased in drinking water,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in the release. “This success demonstrates that EPA and states are working together to lead the world in providing safe drinking water to all Americans.”

A previous EPA finding from 2011 said that some 5 million to 16 million people are exposed to dangerous levels of perchlorate. The substance has been found in high concentrations in at least 26 states, The Times reported. The regulatory delay prompted many states to set their own regulations for the substance.

The Department of Defense and military contractors had pushed back against regulating perchlorate under the Obama administration.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued over the regulatory delay in 2016, prompting the court order from a judge in 2018.

“EPA’s cynical decision to defy a court order and the law, and to ignore the science that, as the American Academy of Pediatrics has said, dictates a strong perchlorate standard to protect vulnerable kids, is a deeply disturbing violation of the agency’s mission,” Erik Olson with the NRDC wrote Thursday.

If the EPA decides not to regulate due to progress from states, it raises questions over how the agency might deal with other substances where states have set their own regulations due to a lack of federal action.

Some states have banned chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked with nervous system damage, or set their own limits for a class of chemicals known as PFAS, cancer-linked substances found in many water supplies.

Updated at 1:52 p.m.

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