Positive perchlorate message

Environmental groups think new NAS standards support tougher
Gilroy – Now that they’ve had some time to digest a federal report on the safety of perchlorate in water and food supplies, some state environmental groups are rallying around it, distancing themselves from their initial contempt for the report and saying it actually supports tougher perchlorate standards.

Leading the charge is the Environmental Working Group, which says the report, released last week by the National Academy of Sciences was unclear and misrepresented in the media.

“The most blatant inaccuracy we saw quite frequently was that the NAS was recommending a perchlorate drinking water standard of 20 parts per billion,” said Renee Sharp, senior analyst with the Working Group. “We want to explain what’s going on. It was very clear that much of the mainstream media got the story wrong.”

The right story, Sharp and other environmentalists say, is that the report supports lowering California’s public health goal, which currently stands at six parts per billion.

The confusion over the report rests in the formulation used by the NAS. The report didn’t include a drinking water standard. Rather, it used what’s known as a reference dose, or the maximum amount of perchlorate a person can consume based on body weight. For the average adult that translates into a level of 23 parts per billion, or a 14-parts per billion standard for drinking water.

But for a baby or small child, the standard could be considerably lower. Environmental groups place it at anywhere from one to 4 parts per billion, and they’re pressuring the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to set the new public health goal accordingly.

“They have certainly made their impressions known to us,” said Allen Hirsch, a spokesman for OEHHA. “And I would say the same thing about the aerospace industry. As environmentalists have consistently felt that the public health goal should be lower, aerospace says it should be higher.”

Perchlorate has been discovered at sites in 35 states, and a study released last year found the salt-like contaminant in lettuce and milk in each of the 15 states where testing was done. California’s public health goal assumes that 60 percent of a person’s perchlorate intake comes from drinking water, meaning its maximum threshold for perchlorate is 10 parts per billion.

The Olin Corp., which is responsible for the perchlorate plume in San Martin and Morgan Hill, currently provides bottled water to residents whose water tests at or above 4 parts per billion. Assemblyman John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) said Thursday that he has urged the California Environmental Protection Agency to lower the health goal to that level. He said he would not introduce legislation to lower the level because “we’ve worked hard to make this a scientific process and we want it to stay that way.”

Initially, though, many environmentalists reacted angrily to the report, focusing on what they called “unprecedented pressure” on the NAS from the White House Department of Defense, which is on the hook for cleaning up much of the nation’s perchlorate, a prime ingredient in rocket fuel.

Sujatha Jahagirdar, of Environment California, which focuses on cleaning air and water, said Thursday that those criticisms were valid, but have obscured aspects of the report that environmentalists take as good news. Also, she said, the report caught many off guard.

“We were actually anticipating that it would be bad,” she said, “that it would justify a higher public health goal in California, and that’s what led to a lot of the initial releases that criticized interference from the Bush administration.”

The day the NAS report was released, Environment California put out its own study supporting a public health goal of 1 part per billion for California’s drinking water. Clean Water Action and the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is in litigation with the federal government over the NAS report, characterized the NAS as having succumbed to pressure from the Pentagon. The next day, the Working Group was touting the report as a victory for cleaner water.

Craig Noble, spokesman for NRDC said the organization stands by its initial assessment.

“We still believe the NAS report is deeply flawed,” Noble said. “The recommended perchlorate level is too high, and it’s particularly too high in the case of children and pregnant women.”

So are environmental groups of one mind on the issue?

“I think the perception of divisions is the product of poor messaging,” Jahagirdar said. “Everyone agrees that the standard should be lower, but everyone has a different take on their priorities. There are different messages but agreement on the problem.”

The problem is the uncertainty over the upcoming drinking water standard that will be set by the state’s Department of Health Services. The level can not be lower than the public health goal. Many environmentalists want OEHHA to refigure the goal, but fear that the process will take too long, maybe as long as three years.

Clean Water Action’s Andria Ventura said her organization is still debating whether to press OEHHA to reset the public health goal. She said the group does want a new interim standard.

“We need something between now and three years from now,” Ventura said. “There needs to be some interim protection for people living with perchlorate, but I’m not sure that every environmental group will support reopening the public health goal.”

Hirsch said that the state will decide in the next few weeks if it will rework the public health goal. Any changes, he said, will be “relatively modest.” So modest that OEHHA won’t necessarily open the process to public review.

“I don’t think there’s any legal constraints on us, but given the high level of public interest in this, we’ll certainly want to do the right thing,” he said.

It’s also possible that the public health goal could go up, regardless of how different environmental groups interpret the NAS report.

“We strongly believe that the NAS report supports a lower drinking water standard,” Sharp said about reopening the process “We’re wary of not having one for several years, but we think it will be worth the wait.”

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