Perchlorate Problem

By John Liang / October 13, 2010 at 4:03 PM

High-level Pentagon officials last month approved staff recommendations to downgrade the munitions ingredient perchlorate from a high priority among chemicals the department evaluates to determine the impact to military readiness, people and the environment, Defense Environment Alert reports this week. The decision was made in light of expected future regulatory restrictions. Further:

The decision comes even as EPA has decided to set a drinking water standard for perchlorate, but signals the maturity of DOD's program to get under control the various risks related to the chemical, according to a DOD official. "Basically, we felt our risk management options were mature enough" that now it is time to move the focus to other emerging contaminants, Shannon Cunniff, director of DOD's Chemical and Material Risk Management Directorate, said in a Oct. 6 interview. So if DOD has perchlorate under control, "what is the next emerging problem?" she said.

In addition, Cunniff downplayed the likelihood of any significant impacts on DOD from the new drinking water standard EPA will set.

In an annual meeting held Sept. 16, DOD's Emerging Contaminants Governance Council endorsed a slew of recommendations made by the chemical risk management directorate regarding priorities for the next year. Among them was a proposal to move perchlorate from the program's high-priority "action" list a notch down to its "watch" list of emerging contaminants. She says it is important to go back to the original purpose of the priority lists, which were to put an intense focus on chemicals DOD needed to take progressive actions on, noting that over the past six years, DOD has characterized the nature of the risks related to perchlorate, found substitutes and has regulator-sanctioned cleanups underway. At the same time, she said downgrading the chemical does not mean DOD will stop undertaking risk management options for it, and does not forgo moving it back up as a priority, she said.

The program identifies chemicals without human health standards or for which regulatory standards are changing, and attempts to more effectively manage their risk, thereby lowering lifecycle costs, driving innovation of substitutes, and avoiding "the need for future crisis-driven retooling to comply with the new regulations," DOD says on a website about the program.

The Governance Council is co-chaired by DOD installation and environment chief Dorothy Robyn and DOD readiness head Samuel Kleinman and includes other high-ranking officials from programs across DOD. The council's endorsements of staff recommendations give them a higher priority in the department.

Cunniff said EPA's upcoming drinking water standard, a maximum contaminant level (MCL), will have little effect on driving additional cleanups at DOD sites. EPA recently decided to regulate perchlorate under the Safe Drinking Water Act, reversing a controversial Bush administration decision not to regulate, after finding that setting a drinking water standard would provide a meaningful opportunity to reduce risks posed by the ubiquitous chemical, according to a federal source. Perchlorate - which is present in drinking water sources in dozens of states - is one of several substances that inhibits the thyroid's uptake of iodine, a deficiency that can lead to developmental delays and reduced IQ among the children of women who were iodine deficient during pregnancy.

The impact of the MCL on DOD "is not expected to be significant," Cunniff said, noting that the department is already conducting cleanup of the chemical under EPA's existing risk number. MCLs can be used to drive cleanups. But she noted that DOD perchlorate cleanups are based on a risk number - the reference dose - followed by a site assessment. And in terms of the MCL's effect on DOD drinking water supplies, she said that in DOD's database of sampling, which includes over 50,000 samples, only one DOD installation has reported a perchlorate level in drinking water above 4 parts per billion.