Muddling toward perchlorate sanity

The dates tell the story. From 1955 to 1996, highway flares were
manufactured at Tennant and Railroad in Morgan Hill, initially by
the Standard Fusee Company, later by Olin Corporation.
In 1997, a new technique was developed to measure perchlorates.
Prior to that year, perchlorates could only be measured if the
concentration exceeded 400 parts per billion.
The dates tell the story. From 1955 to 1996, highway flares were manufactured at Tennant and Railroad in Morgan Hill, initially by the Standard Fusee Company, later by Olin Corporation.

In 1997, a new technique was developed to measure perchlorates. Prior to that year, perchlorates could only be measured if the concentration exceeded 400 parts per billion. The new technique measured concentrations as low as 4 ppb.

Nota bene: a billion is a really big number. Let us discuss for one moment needles in a haystack. Assume each piece of hay is 1/16 of an inch across and 4 inches long. At that rate, a billion pieces of hay would form a bale approximately 20 feet high by 20 feet wide by 20 feet long. The equivalent haystack would be even bigger, because the hay would not be compressed together. Find 4 needles in that stack: that is 4 ppb. But I digress.

In 1998, the federal Environmental Protection Agency placed perchlorate on its Contaminant Candidate List, indicating that it might be a contaminant, but that they did not yet know how much is too much.

In 2000, Olin Corporation detected perchlorates around the closed facility and dutifully notified the state Office of Environmental Safety and the county Public Health Department. In the same year, perchlorate was discovered in San Martin groundwater.

In 2002, the EPA established a 1 ppb notification level. Please note that the EPA was not making a statement that 1 ppb was dangerous, nor that anything should be done about 1 ppb of perchlorate contamination: merely that people should be notified if there is even 1 needle in this 20 by 20 by 20 hay bale.

2003: The motto for 2003 in South Valley should be: “When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” In January one San Martin well tested at 98 ppb, two at 32 ppb, all others at below 10 ppb. Some sample headlines included: (February) “San Martin property values hit?”, (May) “Coping with poison in South Valley water” and “Fee hike for poisoned South Valley water,” and (June) “Perchlorate poison west of plant?” Note the presence of question marks and hysteria.

Meanwhile the EPA and the National Academy of Sciences went quietly ahead with their work: trying to establish a safe drinking water standard. They were considerably hampered by the fact that they could not demonstrate a hazardous level, i.e., a level that caused harm.

In 2004, property values in South County rebounded.

In 2005, the NAS adopted a reference dose equivalent to 24.5 ppb. The EPA has followed their lead and has stated that a 24.5 ppb standard is protective for even the most vulnerable populations, pregnant women and infants.

One would think that all concerned would breathe sighs of relief. One would be mistaken.

Instead, die-hard environmentalists are ranting, all using the same talking points, which is amusing. I mean, what are the chances that Sujatha Jahagirar, a clean water advocate for Environment California, and Tom Mulhern, a Gilroy tech writer, will spontaneously come up with the same phrase about rocket fuel in drinking water? (And what exactly is Tom Mulhern’s technical background, anyway?)

The most annoying choruses are the allegations made by Mulhern, Jahagirar, and Renee Sharp of the Environmental Working Group alleging that the EPA has succumbed to political pressure in setting a standard higher than zero. As Sharp says: “We’ve gone beyond science into the land of politics.”

If by “we,” Sharp means environmentalists, I agree. The EPA and NAS are working toward establishing standards based on science. The environmentalists are ignoring science in favor of political posturing; they want a standard of zero, whether it is necessary, measurable, or even possible to achieve.

Penultimate point: the water company sent out a flier last month, detailing what is in the water and how much. Nitrates are the problem in this valley, not perchlorates. Anyone who is worried had better start distilling his water.

Ultimate point: our perchlorate contamination was caused by a highway flare factory. I suggest that the road flares manufactured by Olin have, in all likelihood, saved far more lives than have been impaired by the perchlorate contamination.

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