Fuel of Cold War Defenses Now Ignites Health Controversy
By Peter Waldman
CORDOVA, Calif. -- For years, Greg and Doris Voetsch felt they were
living a suburban dream here on the banks of the American River.
15 miles from downtown Sacramento, they raised four kids on homegrown
cherries, pears, cucumbers and string beans, along with salmon and
rainbow trout caught in the Sierra-fed waters flowing just beyond
their back door. Mr. Voetsch, a landscaper, used tobacco juice,
instead of pesticides, to keep the aphids at bay. Snow-melt was
their air-conditioning, cooling the hot summer breezes. The cost
of living was "almost nothing," Mr. Voetsch says.
trouble seeped into their paradise. In 1983, 13 years after
the family moved here, surgeons removed two tumors, each of
a different type of cancer, from Mr. Voetsch's thyroid gland.
Shortly after, his two older daughters, both in their 20s at
the time, had surgery to treat thyroid-related problems.
year, his 67-year-old wife, who has had thyroid trouble for years,
had a benign brain tumor removed. The couple's daughter-in-law,
who grew up nearby, also has thyroid problems. Her son -- the Voetsches'
grandson -- is autistic.
years ago, the Voetsches learned that the home they bought in 1970
lies on the edge of a so-called plume of underground water polluted
with waste from a nearby missile factory. Among the chemicals found
in local drinking wells is perchlorate, the main ingredient of solid
rocket fuel and a known toxin. The Voetsches believe it was in their
water and, they suspect, their garden soil. "We lived off the
land and never thought twice about it," Mr. Voetsch says.
the human body, perchlorate affects production of thyroid hormones
-- a phenomenon that the Environmental Protection Agency says can
cause thyroid ailments such as Graves' disease and cancer in adults.
Fetuses and newborns, the EPA says, are at even greater risk, susceptible
to neurological and other developmental damage.
decades, millions of Americans have been unknowingly exposed to
perchlorate through their local water supplies. No one denies that
the chemical is toxic. But the level at which it becomes dangerous
in drinking water is the subject of a fierce debate that pits the
EPA against the Pentagon and its defense-industry allies. As a result,
the U.S. is still years away from establishing a nationally enforced
standard, and until it does so, a poisonous chemical lingers in
the environment in amounts that could still be causing the slow
spread of serious disease on a large scale.
date, the EPA has identified 75 perchlorate releases in 22 states,
including Arizona, Texas, Nebraska, Iowa, New York, Maryland and
Massachusetts, as well as California. The Colorado River, the main
water source for about 15 million homes across the Southwest, contains
perchlorate at roughly seven parts per billion -- seven times the
level that the EPA's National Center for Environmental Assessment
says is safe.
dumping is suspected in nearly all these cases, though perchlorate
has also been linked to fireworks and other explosives, automobile
airbags and Chilean fertilizers, some of which may have been used
near the Voetsches' home. The EPA says it will take hundreds of
years and cost several billion dollars to clean up the known plumes.
EPA wants suspected water supplies tested nationwide for perchlorate,
but the Pentagon, which argues perchlorate isn't dangerous in small
doses, is resisting in many cases. Instead, the Pentagon has asked
Congress for an exemption from environmental laws covering the cleanup
of explosive residues at operational sites.
impossible to determine definitively whether perchlorate caused
the Voetsches' ailments and similar maladies reported by hundreds
of other people in affected areas. California's Department of Health
Services is studying local health statistics for correlations between
perchlorate levels in local drinking water and rates of thyroid
and other disorders associated with the chemical. Eight states have
passed advisory limits on perchlorate, ranging from one part per
billion in Maryland, Massachusetts and New Mexico, to two ppb in
California and 18 ppb in Nevada.
EPA worries even the smallest traces of perchlorate are dangerous,
particularly to infants at risk of neurological damage because thyroid-hormone
production is crucial to normal brain development. In January, the
agency's national assessment center proposed a draft "reference
dose" for perchlorate in drinking water of one part per billion.
That recommendation, when finalized after a peer review process,
goes to the EPA's Office of Water, which ultimately proposes a national
standard after weighing costs and benefits.
everything I've seen on perchlorate, I'm a lot more concerned about
even subtle deficiencies of thyroid hormone on brain development
than I was before," says biologist Thomas Zoeller, an endocrine
expert at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and one of
the 17 peer reviewers of the EPA's draft reference-dose report.
in Cleanup Costs
Pentagon and several of its major contractors, all facing billions
of dollars in possible cleanup and liability costs, say perchlorate
is perfectly safe in trace amounts. They argue the chemical, an
ordinary salt ion similar to nitrate, should be allowed in drinking
water in concentrations up to 200 ppb. "The scientific basis
for believing there's harm has not been established," says
Maureen Koetz, assistant undersecretary of defense for the environment.
perchlorate is an issue at all is a legacy of the Cold War, when
the priorities of containing communism trumped domestic considerations
for the environment and public safety. The military started using
perchlorate in solid rocket fuel and other propellants in the 1940s.
At the time, the chemical wasn't considered very toxic. Millions
of tons of it were simply flushed onto the ground, left to flow
unimpeded into streams and underground aquifers.
polluting continued for years after evidence began to mount of the
dangers of perchlorate. A three-month investigation by The Wall
Street Journal has found that even after California regulators tried
to control disposal of the chemical in the 1950s, companies dumped
it with impunity. It wasn't until the 1970s, after passage of federal
clean-water laws, that the defense industry began trying to contain
perchlorate waste for treatment. But by then, the chemical had already
begun its long, slow seep into water supplies nationwide.
late as 1976, in fact, Aerojet-General Corp., operator of the missile
plant near the Voetsches' home, built a special, 3,500-foot pipeline
to dump toxic waste into unlined earthen pits -- directly disobeying
a local water-board order issued just months earlier, state documents
show. At first, Aerojet told investigators the pipe was just a stopgap
measure to bypass a clogged holding pond.
3,500-foot pipeline may not quite be temporary," acknowledges
William Phillips, longtime general counsel of Aerojet's parent,
GenCorp Inc., of Sacramento. But Mr. Phillips and other defense-industry
officials say that the contractors' disposal practices were state-of-the-art
at the time, particularly for a chemical they didn't -- and still
don't -- consider very harmful. Moreover, the defense suppliers
say they followed all orders and guidelines issued by the Pentagon,
which owned and managed most of the perchlorate supply and put its
own inspectors inside factories to ensure proper handling.
Pentagon, for its part, says its job is national security, not environmental
safety. "We are no different from any other set of individuals
who operate in states and localities and follow the laws,"
says Ms. Koetz, the assistant undersecretary of defense. "We
do not consider it our job to get out in front of the health and
environmental regulatory agencies in terms of discovering"
someone have connected the dots in 1962, 1972 or 1982? Absolutely,"
says Kevin Mayer, an EPA Superfund official in San Francisco and
the agency's point man on perchlorate. "But it didn't happen.
There isn't any one person or one agency that definitively dropped
the ball. Everyone did nothing."
what upsets people living in perchlorate-polluted areas. Though
tests revealed high levels of perchlorate in the Voetsches' neighborhood
water as far back as 1963 -- seven years before they moved in --
state water regulators declared local wells safe. The Voetsches
joined a class-action lawsuit in 1998, filed in Sacramento state
court, accusing Aerojet, Boeing Co. and two local water utilities
of negligence and fraud. The defendants contest the allegations,
and the case is pending.
think they knew it was dangerous and just kept doing it," says
Mr. Voetsch, now 68 years old. "There was nobody there to stop
them, and nobody was the wiser."
fueled the takeoff of American rocketry. During World War II, the
Navy tapped Theodore von Karman, a Hungarian-born aeronautics professor
at California Institute of Technology, to develop engines powerful
enough to lift planes off the short flight decks of aircraft carriers.
He and some other rocket hobbyists from CalTech founded Aerojet
in Pasadena, Calif. Their breakthrough: so-called jet-assisted takeoff
rockets, fueled by solid perchlorate compounds that were highly
charged but stable enough to be handled safely aboard ships.
dubbed "powdered oxygen," is combusted inside a rocket
engine with aluminum powder and a rubber-like polymer to stoke an
intense burn. To propel a rocket, the solid fuel must be ground
and molded into a particular shape. Over time, the fuel breaks down,
requiring continual replacements. That's why, for more than 40 years,
tons of perchlorate were routinely flushed from rockets and missiles
onto the ground and into water supplies.
began manufacturing at a plant in the San Gabriel Valley town of
Azusa, Calif., about 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Nearly
from the start, it had discharge problems. In 1949, the Los Angeles
County engineer warned the company in a letter that dumping its
hazardous waste into "cesspools" and "seepage beds"
posed an "extreme hazard" to the underground water supply.
"I cannot too strongly emphasize the necessity of obtaining
a sewer connection in the shortest possible time," pleaded
the county engineer, who noted Aerojet was already in violation
of local discharge restrictions. Aerojet was never punished, and
its Azusa plant was connected to an industrial sewer line in 1952.
Out of the City
in by the burgeoning Los Angeles suburbs, Aerojet moved most of
its rocket operations north to some abandoned gold-dredging fields
in Rancho Cordova, about 15 miles east of Sacramento. In 1951, shortly
after buying the site, an Aerojet employee calculated that about
1,000 gallons of liquid waste, plus 300 pounds of ammonium perchlorate,
would flow into the underground aquifer every day. Most of the waste
would have "a deleterious effect on both plant life and the
underground water supply," he warned in an internal memo. But
ammonium perchlorate might "be beneficial in a sewage stream
and possibly be slightly beneficial on plant life," he added.
in the San Gabriel Valley, Aerojet designed a system in Rancho Cordova
to channel waste into unlined leaching ponds, apparently assuming
whatever pollutants did reach groundwater would be diluted to safe
levels. But when those designs were circulated for comment to California's
water, health, and fish-and-game departments in Sacramento, the
regulators unanimously panned the proposed "percolation beds"
as posing grave pollution risks to streams and underground aquifers,
state documents show.
sought specific toxicity advice on perchlorate from a botany professor
at the University of California at Davis. He replied that perchlorate
was "known to be toxic to plant life" and was unlikely
to break down "in course of percolation through gravel."
For treatment, he recommended evaporation in "sealed beds"
and "absorption and contact with organic matter."
this so-called biological method is a common way of extracting perchlorate
from water. "It's astonishing how right he was," says
Mr. Mayer of the EPA.
May 15, 1952, California's Central Valley Regional Water Pollution
Control Board, over Aerojet's objections, issued Resolution No.
127, barring "entry" of perchlorate and eight other chemicals
into local groundwater and the nearby American River. That same
year, medical researchers published their findings that perchlorate
blocks the uptake of essential iodide into the thyroid gland, thus
inhibiting thyroid-hormone production.
the medical findings nor the water board's order had much effect.
By 1955, regulators were finding perchlorate in local groundwater.
Though hampered by primitive test methods and Navy secrecy, a state
hydraulic engineer reported that untreated discharges of some 310
pounds a day of perchlorate were being dumped into "abandoned
gold dredger pits." The good news, he reported, was that the
waste was seeping into the ground more slowly than expected. The
bad news, reported a few months later, was that a nondrinking well
on Aerojet's property was contaminated with 1,000 ppb of perchlorate,
indicating "waste water from the sump is commingling with underlying
Phillips, the GenCorp general counsel, says Aerojet's disposal practices
met all safety and regulatory requirements of the day. "You
were supposed to put [perchlorate] in these pits," he says.
"We thought the pits were impermeable."
1957, a national task group on underground waste reported perchlorate
contamination had spread over "several square miles" east
of Sacramento. The group's report, published in the American Water
Works Association Journal, described perchlorate as a "weedicide"
toxic to plants at 1,000 to 2,000 ppb. It said the perchlorate plume
near Sacramento ranged from 3.5 million to five million ppb. Also
that year, some Harvard University researchers, using studies on
guinea pigs, found that perchlorate, after passing through the placenta
from the mother, depleted thyroid-hormone production in fetuses.
1958, the Water Pollution Control Board notified Aerojet that its
discharges were "consistently in violation of the board's requirements."
At a special briefing for state agencies in 1960, board engineers
described Aerojet's operations as a mess, with "four or five
major discharges" into a creek feeding the American River and
many smaller releases onto the ground. Aerojet, citing security,
wouldn't tell regulators all the chemicals it was using, according
to regulators' documents from the briefing.
pointed out that just because we do not know what is going on in
this area, an area of extremely permeable sediments, the board should
not give industry a blank check to discharge anything [it] desired
to the groundwater basin," a state engineer wrote after the
upshot was Resolution 62-21, the board's 1962 order to Aerojet not
to discharge anything "deleterious to human, animal, plant,
or aquatic life" into local waters. The resolution set maximum
discharge levels for 21 chemicals -- 1,000 ppb for perchlorate --
and ordered Aerojet, for the first time, to "disinfect"
all waste before it left Aerojet's property.
this was the year of the Cuban missile crisis, and Aerojet had other
concerns. A unit of General Tire at the time, Aerojet was playing
a big part in helping the U.S. close the missile gap with the Soviet
Union. At the height of the rocket race in the early 1960s, Aerojet's
Sacramento County facility employed 22,000 workers in three shifts,
seven days a week. In 1962, they helped build and deploy the first
solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile, the Minuteman I.
Because it didn't require hours to load, as liquid-fuel rockets
do, the Minuteman is believed to have helped steel President Kennedy's
nerve during the Cuban missile crisis.
operations were overseen by 300 to 400 full-time Pentagon inspectors
who approved every facet of design, production and waste disposal,
says Aerojet's Mr. Phillips. "Had we known we could have done
something to keep this [perchlorate contamination] from happening,
they would have given it to us," he says. "Everybody involved
thought they were doing the right thing."
1961, Aerojet had begun burning its excess perchlorate, along with
drums of the chlorinated solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, which
is now considered carcinogenic. Still, large quantities of the chemicals
continued to go into the ground, according to accounts by former
Aerojet employees given to California investigators in a 1979 criminal
probe. (That state investigation was dropped in the mid-1980s, when
Aerojet agreed to sign a consent decree to clean up its waste.)
write-ups of those witness accounts obtained by the Journal, several
employees described a chemical "sludge" left over after
burning that Aerojet would let seep into the ground or would bury
in separate pits. Former employees, including one identified as
the foreman of Aerojet's chemical-waste-disposal unit from 1963
to 1968, said they dumped hazardous chemicals into a septic lagoon
meant for human waste. Witnesses also said many workers continued
dumping perchlorate and TCE into "rock piles" and open
ponds. (TCE was heavily used to clean missile parts laden with solid
tests of the underground aquifer at the Aerojet site showed steadily
rising concentrations of perchlorate -- from 18,000 ppb in the mid-1950s
to 91,000 ppb in 1979. In the decade after 1955 alone, Aerojet processed
roughly 19 million pounds of ammonium perchlorate at "grind
station" Line 03, company documents say. The "daily washdown"
of the area flowed into unlined ponds.
water board issued more discharge orders, with little effect. In
February 1976, for example, the board granted permission to Aerojet's
Cordova Chemical unit to dig an injection well for inserting waste
deep underground. The board's order explicitly barred "pollution"
and discharging waste to any "surface drainage courses."
Yet just three months after that order came out, Cordova built the
3,500-foot pipeline to channel waste straight into an unlined dredger
the worst thing I know about on this whole place," says Aerojet's
Mr. Phillips. The general counsel says that Aerojet never hid its
perchlorate contamination. He points out that the company notified
the water board in the mid-1970s that it detected perchlorate in
its groundwater at 50 times the board's allowable limit. No one
worried about it then, Mr. Phillips says, because, among other reasons,
Aerojet's wells weren't for drinking.
became a drinking-water concern in 1985, when the EPA detected it
in wells serving about 42,000 households near Aerojet's original
facility in the San Gabriel Valley, near Los Angeles. The agency
found concentrations ranging from 110 ppb to 2,600 ppb. But five
of the six so-called field blanks -- samples of purified water that
were also tested to assure data quality -- inexplicably tested positive
for perchlorate. Flummoxed, EPA reviewers threw out most of the
test results as unreliable. (Today, some EPA officials believe those
field blanks probably came from Colorado River water or other tainted
scientists asked the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta
for guidance on possible health risks from perchlorate. The response,
written by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
on Jan. 26, 1986, underscored the same toxicity concerns the Pentagon
and EPA are still arguing about 17 years later. The agency "strongly
recommended" retesting the San Gabriel wells.
the limited data available does not suggest that several [thousand
ppb] of perchlorates would represent an acute threat to public health,"
the toxic-substance agency letter concluded, "the effects of
continued low-level perchlorate ingestion need to be described as
soon as possible."
effects remained undescribed for more than a decade afterward. In
1992, the EPA, citing the 1952 study on perchlorate's effects on
thyroid-hormone production, issued its first health assessment of
the chemical, proposing an initial reference dose for perchlorate
of four ppb in drinking water. By then, Aerojet's facilities in
Northern and Southern California had both been named EPA Superfund
sites because of contamination by TCE and other known carcinogens.
The Sacramento facility, in fact, was treating groundwater for other
toxic agents and reinjecting it into the aquifer with 8,000 ppb
of perchlorate still in it -- with regulators' full assent.
did not have any data which indicated that perchlorate had been
identified as a contaminant of concern," testified Thomas Pinkos,
who oversaw Aerojet's cleanup for the regional water board from
1979 through 1988, in a recent deposition.
the EPA's 1992 health warning, state officials watched warily as
Aerojet's perchlorate plume spread toward drinking wells in Rancho
Cordova. At the time, the most sensitive test equipment could detect
perchlorate at levels only above 400 ppb. The defense industry,
meanwhile, was fighting the EPA's health assessment, arguing in
a 1995 report to the EPA that the reference dose should be 42,000
ppb in drinking water. Aerojet itself grew less cooperative with
state officials, regulators say. "Plumes tended to stop at
their fences," one quips.
logjam broke in early 1997, when a California state lab, prodded
by residents in Rancho Cordova, developed a new method for measuring
perchlorate down to four ppb. With the lower detection limit, the
substance quickly turned up in Rancho Cordova's wells at levels
reaching 300 ppb.
Voetsches learned in the media about the thyroid-disrupting contaminant
shuttering nearby wells. Mr. Voetsch says he attended several community
meetings, following up with various public and private officials
to pursue his family's case. But the only person who returned his
calls, he says, was a local geographer and Navy vet named Larry
Ladd, who has made perchlorate pollution his passion. The Voetsches
then joined the class-action lawsuit, led by the law firm that employs
Erin Brockovich, the toxic-tort paralegal played by Julia Roberts
in the film of the same name. The suit, among several filed over
perchlorate contamination, is mired in the courts, and Mr. Voetsch
says he hasn't heard from the lawyers in years.
thoroughly convinced no one wants to know what's going on here,"
Mr. Voetsch says.
firm's chief attorney, Edward Masry, says the perchlorate clients
haven't been contacted in several years because a judge put a stay
on their case, pending legal motions, but should be hearing from
the firm shortly.
more-sensitive tests, perchlorate quickly turned up in several water
supplies in Southern California. In 1997, the San Gabriel Valley
plume -- 11 years after its initial discovery -- had spread to a
five-square-mile area beneath about 250,000 residents, according
to the San Gabriel Basin Water Master.
nearby San Bernardino County, perchlorate plumes prompted closure
of dozens of wells, threatening some communities with water shortages.
When local Defense Department officials got wind of a plume in Redlands,
Calif., they circulated an internal "bellringer" report
telling colleagues to keep the information secret. The June 1997
report noted 250,000 residents could be "adversely affected,"
with "pregnant women and children" among the most at risk.
Yet, citing the local outrage at perchlorate's discovery in wells
near Sacramento several months earlier, the report warned of "far
reaching ramifications when the public learns of the situation."
Its conclusion: "Future procurement programs could be adversely
affected due to increased environmental costs."
1997, the Pentagon and several defense contractors, under EPA pressure,
launched the first toxicological studies to determine perchlorate's
effects at low exposure levels -- the same studies that ultimately
led to the EPA's reference dose this year. Meanwhile, perchlorate
plumes popped up at defense sites all across the country -- Texas
and Utah in 1998, then Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, West Virginia
and Maryland the next year.
the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California found the
chemical in taps in Los Angeles, scientists traced the plume 400
miles up the Colorado River to Lake Mead, above Hoover Dam. From
there, they tracked the plume 10 miles westward, up a desert riverbed
called the Las Vegas Wash, to Kerr-McGee Corp.'s giant ammonium
perchlorate plant in Henderson, Nev.
Navy built the plant in the 1940s to make perchlorate compounds
for the war. Inherited by Kerr-McGee in a 1967 merger, the facility
spilled thousands of pounds of perchlorate waste every day through
the mid-1970s into unlined evaporation ponds. The chemical leached
into shallow groundwater over the years, seeping into the Las Vegas
Wash, the main drain into Lake Mead for wastewater coming from Las
was detected in Kerr-McGee's groundwater back in the mid-1980s,
and it was ignored. The company was then treating the aquifer for
the metal chromium-6, and reinjecting high levels of perchlorate-tainted
water back underground, say officials of Nevada's Division of Environmental
Protection. "The guidance on perchlorate was lacking,"
says Patrick Corbett, director of environmental affairs for Kerr-McGee,
based in Oklahoma City.
is spending roughly $70 million to extract perchlorate, too, but
is catching only about half the 900 pounds a day seeping into the
Las Vegas Wash, EPA officials say. The company, which has filed
a lawsuit seeking Pentagon reimbursement for the cleanup costs,
says it's adding new systems to capture much more of the perchlorate.
Still, so much perchlorate has already entered Lake Mead that the
levels below Hoover Dam -- all the way out to Los Angeles -- have
hardly budged in five years, ranging from five to 10 ppb.
will probably take decades for the dilution effect to flush it all
out," says Douglas Zimmerman, an environmental regulator in
addition to slaking thirsts across the Southwest, the Colorado River
water irrigates 95% of America's winter lettuce crop, grown in Yuma,
Ariz., and California's Imperial Valley. The EPA says it still doesn't
know if lettuce and other vegetables accumulate perchlorate from
irrigation water, but preliminary indications aren't good. Tests
on several vegetable samples from a perchlorate-contaminated farm
in Redlands found the plants concentrated perchlorate from local
irrigation water by an average factor of 65, according to calculations
by Renee Sharp of the Environmental Working Group in Oakland, Calif.,
one of the few nonprofit groups focused on perchlorate contamination.
That means the perchlorate dose in the vegetables was 65 times the
amount in the water.
people are eating it, on top of drinking it, the EPA will have to
lower its proposed drinking-water standard substantially,"
Ms. Sharp says.
now, that standard is only a recommendation. Enactment of a national
standard will have to wait until either the EPA or the defense establishment
prevails. Meanwhile, Aerojet and Lockheed Martin Corp. are already
spending hundreds of millions of dollars to extract perchlorate
from aquifers they polluted in California, with much of it being
reimbursed by the Pentagon.
Lester thinks it's too little, too late to help her. She grew up
on Rancho Cordova's perchlorate plume, near the Voetsch family,
and fell sick with Graves' disease at age 15. Now 20, she wants
to become a large-animal veterinarian, but is still enfeebled by
skin problems, muscle pains and other complications of her disease.
She blames perchlorate and had joined another class-action suit,
but she heard this month that the law firm is dropping her case.
doesn't seem like the government cares very much about this problem,"
she says. "It's not like perchlorate is killing people. It's