27 December 2002
Perchlorate Woes Trouble Property Developers
From Chemical Dumped During Cold War Hinders Growth Plans
By Peter Waldman
of the nation's fastest-growing areas -- including Las Vegas, Texas
and Southern California -- could face debilitating water shortages
because of groundwater contamination by perchlorate, the main ingredient
of solid rocket fuel.
chemical, dumped widely during the Cold War at military bases and
defense-industry sites, has seeped into water supplies in 22 states.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense
are embroiled in a bitter dispute over perchlorate's health effects,
with the EPA recommending a strict drinking-water limit that the
Pentagon opposes as too costly. Yet even without a national standard,
state regulators and water purveyors are taking no chances: Dozens
of perchlorate-tainted wells have been shuttered nationwide, casting
a pall on growth plans in several parched areas.
is what scientists call an endocrine disrupter, a chemical that
can alter hormonal balances -- thyroid hormones, in this case --
and thus impede metabolism and brain development, particularly among
newborns. The chemical isn't believed to enter the body through
the skin, so bathing in contaminated water isn't considered dangerous.
The real debate is over how much ingested perchlorate causes harm.
The outcome of that argument will ultimately determine how much
the Pentagon and its defense contractors will have to spend to cleanse
the chemical from the nation's drinking supplies.
EPA has urged the Pentagon to undertake widespread testing for perchlorate
in groundwater, but the Defense Department has resisted. Its official
policy, issued last month, allows testing only where a "reasonable
basis" exists to suspect perchlorate contamination is both
present and "could threaten public health."
major problem is that perchlorate is turning up in many unexpected
places, including at military training and test ranges where rockets
and missiles -- with their large quantities of solid propellants
-- aren't believed to have been used. Some scientists believe other
types of munitions that used tiny amounts of perchlorate may be
the culprits. Many of the ordinary military ranges with perchlorate
pollution lie on the outskirts of growing cities, in places that
were once distant from civilian neighborhoods but now serve as watersheds
and open space for sprawling suburban communities.
details on eight of the 75 perchlorate plumes detected nationwide.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's recommended safety level
for perchlorate in drinking water is one part per billion.
For example, though the Navy said no perchlorate was used at
the firing range at the Marine Corps Air Station in El Toro,
Calif., the chemical showed up in groundwater tests beneath
a site considered for a public park, according to attorney Greg
Hurley of the site's restoration advisory board. Likewise, in
Bourne, Mass., on Cape Cod, a perchlorate plume that has shuttered
half the town's wells emanated from the nearby
Military Reserve, a training range for National Guard troops. And
the plume that has curtailed 20% of the water supply of Aberdeen,
Md., outside Washington D.C., began at Aberdeen Proving Ground,
an Army training and munitions-test site. Representatives for the
Army and National Guard acknowledge the perchlorate plumes originated
from their ranges, and both services have assigned large teams of
environmental experts to address the problem.
is throwing a wrench in the works all over," says Lenny Siegel,
who runs the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, a nonprofit
group in Mountain View, Calif., that works with communities on military
cleanups. "They've only started looking for it recently, and
as far as I know, everywhere they've looked, they've found it."
situation is most acute in the hills and desert frontier east of
Los Angeles, where the military and its private contractors flocked
to the wide-open spaces before and after the Second World War. Now,
in one of the few bright spots of the national economy, those spaces
are rapidly filling up with new homes that buyers line up to purchase
before they are even finished.
perennial California constraint is water, so the discovery of perchlorate
in cherished underground aquifers throughout Southern California
-- and in the mighty Colorado River itself, the water source for
more than 15 million households in the region -- is raising alarm.
The city of Rialto in San Bernardino County, for example, has lost
half its water capacity to perchlorate contamination in recent months,
with an additional 10% to 20% of its supply under threat from the
spreading plume. Rialto and several nearby cities and water utilities
have asked the Pentagon and defense contractors believed responsible
for the pollution for emergency funds to buy replacement water,
but have so far been denied.
Rialto is faced with a critical decision: how to slake existing
water demand, while providing huge quantities of extra water needed
for dust control to complete a crucial project on highway 210, without
further spreading the perchlorate contamination. One proposal, to
use recycled wastewater, would entail transporting water from the
city's treatment plant in as many as 1,000 trucks a week. But the
highway that would be used, Interstate 5, is so choked with traffic
that the one-mile drive can take more than an hour.
can we expect our economy to hold if the freeway doesn't get built?"
asks Bradley Baxter, Rialto's director of public works. "This
perchlorate crisis could stop development in the city altogether."
city of Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County, northeast of the San
Fernando Valley, has had similar problems resolving perchlorate
pollution at a 987-acre site once used for munitions manufacturing
in the heart of the fast-growing Santa Clarita Valley. The city
has lost three of its 13 drinking wells to perchlorate, which has
seeped into both the shallow and deep aquifers in the area. For
years, the city has planned homes and roads to be built on the so-called
Whittaker-Bermite property to fill in the suburbs, which grew around
the site like a doughnut, but local and state regulators, who found
the perchlorate plume in 1997, couldn't prod successive owners of
the land to clean it up.
month, California's Department of Toxic Substances Control ordered
the original munitions maker that owned the site, Meggitt PLC's
Whittaker unit, to begin cleanup immediately, but the company has
yet to respond, says William Manetta, president of Santa Clarita
Water Co. "Here we are five years later, and nothing has changed.
Our wells are just sitting there," he says.
outside lawyer, Joseph Armao, says the company intends to fulfill
any cleanup obligations it has, but it remains unclear whether Santa
Clarita's perchlorate plume emanates from Whittaker's former manufacturing
site. The attorney also said it is "only fair" that the
Defense Department take responsibility for the perchlorate problem,
because it furnished and oversaw much of the chemical's use.
has also turned up, from unknown causes, in the Ogallala aquifer,
the major water source for nine West Texas counties near Midland.
So far, no wells have been shut, though concentrations have been
detected as high as 30 parts per billion, or 30 times the level
the EPA recommends as safe. Warnings have been issued in some areas
for people not to drink the water. Elsewhere in Texas, near Waco,
the chemical has surfaced in wells at the McGregor Naval Weapons
Plant, and downstream in the South Bosque River, which supplies
water to the city of Waco.
Nevada, the drinking supply for Las Vegas, which draws most of its
water from Lake Mead above the Hoover Dam, this year contained perchlorate
in levels 10 times what the EPA says is safe, according to data
provided by the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
nearby Henderson, perchlorate concerns are complicating plans to
build a 9,000-home community on the 2,300-acre site of old industrial-waste
ponds. The ponds drained toxic substances from several factories,
including the one that manufactured the perchlorate that seeped
into Lake Mead and the Colorado River.
project's developer, Basic Management Inc.'s LandWell unit, has
submitted two draft "Closure Plans" for the site in the
past 18 months to Nevada's Division of Environmental Protection.
But division officials say neither draft adequately characterizes
the environmental risks associated with building the $350 million
project on top of former industrial-waste ponds. In particular,
the "Closure Plans" make assumptions about the source
and flow of the area's perchlorate plume that need to be verified,
Nevada officials say.
Stewart, chief executive of Basic Management, says the developer
is completing the necessary studies and is committed to doing whatever
it takes to clean the area properly. He says the company has already
fully paid for two insurance policies to cap its environmental liability
and is eager to move ahead with the project, named Provenance. "None
of us went into this with our eyes shut," Mr. Stewart says