WASHINGTON – True to Trump-era environmental policy, the Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday it would not regulate a drinking water contaminant that has been linked to brain damage in infants.
The agency said the Trump administration’s 2020 decision not to regulate perchlorate in drinking water was made with the “best peer-reviewed science available.” The chemical is used in rocket fuel and fireworks.
At the time, Trump’s EPA said perchlorate was not present in enough drinking water or “at levels of public health concern” to warrant federal regulation. The decision was one of many Trump-era reversals or eliminations of existing or pending public health and environmental protections. The Biden administration ordered a review of that decision early in his term.
EPA Deputy Administrator Radhika Fox said the agency was “applying the right tools to support public health protections.”
Environmental groups have criticized the Biden administration’s decision.
“The Trump EPA gave perchlorate a pass; it was a bad decision then, and it’s a bad decision now,” said Erik Olson of the advocacy group the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Tap water across America will remain contaminated with this toxic chemical.”
Perchlorate from runoff contaminates the drinking water of 16 million Americans, the Obama administration said in 2011 when it announced that the EPA would set maximum limits for the chemical compound for the first time. It has been used in the United States for decades, particularly by the military and defense industries, and is commonly found in munitions, fireworks, matches, and flares.
Exposure to the compound can harm fetal and child development and cause measurable drops in IQ in newborns, the American Academy of Pediatrics said in 2019, when it called for strict federal limits. It harms human development by disrupting the functioning of the thyroid gland.
In its 2020 review, the EPA said state-level regulations and contaminated site cleanup activities have reduced the health risks posed by the compound. Massachusetts and California, for example, limit perchlorate in drinking water to 2 parts per billion and 6 parts per billion, respectively.
“But the problem is that for the rest of the country, the states haven’t set standards,” said Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He said the compound is in “the upper tier of problematic chemicals in our water.”
In the southwest, perchlorate has been detected in groundwater that has entered Lake Mead in Nevada. Manufacturing facilities in Henderson, Nevada, were the source of the chemical. The EPA said cleanup activities at two industrial sites in the state between 2002 and 2006 resulted in a reduction in perchlorate levels in data provided since then by Nevada environmental and water agencies. .
The EPA said Thursday it is considering other measures besides a federal drinking water limit, such as setting standards for open burning and detonation sites, where severe contamination perchlorate is generated by the combustion of hazardous by-products from the manufacture of weapons and ammunition. One such site is in Colfax, Louisiana, where environmentalists have long advocated for reform.
But conservationists have said such measures are not enough.
“Put simply, the toxic chemicals used in rocket fuel have no place in our drinking water,” said John Rumpler, senior counsel at Environment America.
AP reporter Matthew Daly contributed to this report.
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