Trenton — A decision last month to abandon a multi-year effort to stem the spread of perchlorate, a chemical found in rocket fuel, by New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner on the grounds that federal regulation will soon be forthcoming is belied by e-mails from the federal experts who briefed state officials, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, New Jerseyans will be exposed to growing levels of this dangerous chemical for several years to come without any governmental protection.
E-mails obtained by PEER under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that, contrary to claims by Acting DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, staff from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told him that –
- There was no certain date for any federal action, although one official had predicted that EPA may be poised to take a preliminary step by this summer;
- That preliminary step would not contain a hard limit or maximum contamination level (MCL) as the proposed New Jersey standard would have. At a minimum it would take EPA another two to three years to develop even a proposed MCL; and
- The earliest that any federal standard could be implemented in New Jersey would be 6½ years at the earliest from when EPA decided to act, if it decided to act.
Even though Mr. Martin had months to work on the perchlorate issue, he waited until March 12th – just four days before a final deadline to either adopt or reject a proposed state water maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 5 micrograms per liter (μg/L) for perchlorate in drinking water. Martin received his most detailed briefings on March 16th, the actual day of the deadline. Later that afternoon DEP issued a press release announcing the decision to jettison perchlorate standards, citing impending EPA action.
“Mr. Martin misrepresented the facts, assuming that no one would check what EPA actually told him,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst, noting that state scientists had spent years on their risk assessment using the latest and most rigorous science. “These e-mails show that Bob Martin was scrambling at the last minute to find any reason to overlook the science and the public health concerns to justify the anti-regulatory decision he had apparently already made.”
As yet, there is no federal standard (although there is a guideline of 15 μg/L) while California and Massachusetts have 5 μg/L standards in place. Perchlorate has been found in approximately one-sixth of New Jersey public water systems and 1/3 of residential wells sampled. The chemical affects thyroid function, especially in infants, pregnant women and their fetuses.
New Jersey’s proposed perchlorate standard could have been finalized when EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson served as DEP Commissioner, but she unaccountably delayed her decision. Now New Jersey’s fate on this issue is again in Ms. Jackson’s hands under a time-line that is no less elusive than before.
“Waiting for EPA on perchlorate may be like waiting for Godot,” added Wolfe, pointing out that EPA has wrestled fruitlessly with how to address spreading perchlorate contamination for more than a decade in the face of vehement opposition from the Pentagon and military contractors. “State governments are supposed to protect their citizens, not pass the buck to Washington.”
While PEER obtained the e-mails under the federal Freedom of Information Act, DEP denied an identical request that PEER filed under the state Open Public Records Act on the grounds that the materials were confidential as pre-decisional records.
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability