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“Immoral Failure To Act” To Protect Mothers and Infants

Jim O’Neill of the Bergen Record wrote a killer story in today’s Record – the story shines a bright spotlight on the ill advised Christie Administration’s environmental policies which require a cost benefit analysis justification and seek consistency with minimum federal standards:

Water Tests Too Costly NJ Says – Puts Perchlorate Rules on Hold
Sunday, April 25, 2010
BY JAMES M. O’NEILL

The Christie administration has backed off plans to require testing and treatment of drinking water for a chemical ingredient of fertilizer and rocket fuel that has been found in some private and public wells in North Jersey and which poses health risks for pregnant women and infants even with short-term exposure.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin angered some environmentalists when he chose not to sign a proposed statewide rule that would have set a limit on how much perchlorate can remain in drinking water.

The rule would have required public water systems to test for perchlorate and treat the water if levels exceeded 5 parts per billion. The rule would also have required property owners with private wells to test for perchlorate during real estate transactions.

The New Jersey Realtors Association and the New Jersey Builders Association had opposed the rule, citing the potential financial costs to homeowners with private wells.

Martin said he discussed the issue with scientists at the DEP and the federal Environmental Protection Agency before deciding against the rule that had been proposed by the prior DEP commissioner, Mark Mauriello. “I carefully weighed all the scientific evidence and potential economic impacts,” Martin said in a statement. “I simply was not convinced that we had the most complete data on what the appropriate levels should be.”

He said the EPA is now deciding whether to regulate perchlorate nationwide and that “once we have all the data, a decision will be made.”

But some environmentalists said that waiting for the EPA to issue its own rule means a dangerous delay of up to four years.

“Best case is that if the EPA decides later this year to regulate perchlorate, it will be another two years before they come out with the rule,” said Bill Wolfe, New Jersey director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “In the meantime New Jersey homeowners could be drinking contaminated water and not know it. Three years is the key development life of a child.”

[…]

Support for rule

Duncan Carpenter, president of the Saddle River Board of Health, wrote to the DEP last month supporting the proposed perchlorate rule. He called it “an important public health protection that should be provided not only to the affected residents in our area, but also to residents in the rest of the state who may not be aware that their water supply is affected by this contaminant.”

In 2008, the EPA recommended that water suppliers treat for perchlorate if levels are above 15 parts per billion, but it didn’t make it a requirement. During her confirmation hearing to become EPA administrator, Lisa Jackson – the former head of New Jersey’s DEP – was questioned closely by Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, on perchlorate. Boxer described the EPA’s failure to act on the perchlorate issue as “immoral.”

We agree with US Senator Boxer and condemn DEP Commissioner Martin’s decision to kill the proposed perchlorate rule.

What Martin did is far worse than EPA’s failure to act – Martin blocked DEP from acting.

And in doing so, he elevated the economic profits of the Builders, Realtors, and polluters above public health concerns.

We believe that consideration of economic costs in setting drinking water standards is both immoral and violates the NJ Safe Drinking Water Act.

The federal Safe Drinking Water Act does authorize EPA to consider costs in setting minimum national drinking water standards. But the NJ law is stricter and does not – which is a very good reason why the Christie cost benefit analysis justification and federal consistency policy are so flawed. DEP very clearly distinguished the role of economic factors in EPA setting minimum national standards from the stricter NJ SDWA, which does not allow costs to be considered as a factor in setting drinking water standards. Quoting DEP’s rule proposal, as we wrote on March 12:

The [NJ Drinking Water Quality] Institute considers three factors when recommending MCLs: health effects, technological ability to measure the contaminant level, and ability of existing treatment technologies to meet the MCL. For chemicals causing effects other than cancer (noncarcinogens), the goal is the elimination of all adverse health effects resulting from ingestion, within the limits of practicability and feasibility. The Federal standard-setting process considers these factors and an additional economic factor. (proposal at page 19-20)

In terms of the science, DEP already found major flaws with EPA’s 15 ppb Guidance value:

It should be noted that on October 10, 2008 USEPA issued a preliminary regulatory determination for perchlorate through its drinking water Contaminant Candidate List process (73 Fed.Reg., page 60262). USEPA preliminarily determined that a drinking water standard (MCL) for perchlorate is not needed. Instead USEPA will publish a final non-enforceable health based guidance level at the same time its final regulatory determination is issued. The USEPA regulatory determination established a drinking water Health Reference Level for perchlorate of 15 μg/l. The Department has submitted comments expressing concerns with the USEPA preliminary regulatory determination. The main points made in the comments are: 1) A health based level of 15 μg/l is not protective of infants, as they would be exposed to several times the RfD at this concentration. 2) USEPA should adopt a Federal drinking water standard, rather than drinking water guidance, since perchlorate occurs in public water supplies at levels of health concern at a frequency sufficient to warrant regulation. (proposal at page 6. emphasis supplied)

In terms of the recent EPA Inspector General’s Report, we note the following major flaws in that report: (Source: E&E Reporter, 4/21/10)

A draft of the IG report last year came under fire from environmentalists and public health experts for failing to justify its support of the more liberal drinking water standard.

Although OIG’s use of a cumulative effect approach may have merit, it is inappropriately used to argue against a protective drinking water value for perchlorate,” Massachusetts Environmental Protection Department officials wrote. “From a public health perspective and desire to protect children’s health, exposures to multiple thyroid toxicants should lower the acceptable exposure value for any single toxicant not the other way around” (Greenwire, May 15, 2009).

We have written about the perchlorate issue – here and here and here – and will continue to keep you posted as this debate unfolds.

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  1. scott olson
    April 25th, 2010 at 12:07 | #1

    Wolfe – the print version of the Record has an even more disturbing headline than the online version of the story: “Water tests too costly, N.J. says” – sent a pdf of front page to you privately

  2. April 25th, 2010 at 12:47 | #2

    Thanks Scott! I made the change to the headline above.

    This was first DEP rules kill based on cost benefit analysis. I’m afraid there are many more in the pipeline.

  3. Wayne Simpson
    April 27th, 2010 at 16:54 | #3

    I thought you might be interested in today’s article in the American Water Works Association newsletter:

    http://www.awwa.org/publications/StreamlinesArticle.cfm?itemnumber=54368

    What’s your take on this?

  4. April 27th, 2010 at 17:22 | #4

    Thanks Wayne – One of the 4 key AWW findings is:

    “EPA’s perchlorate RfD [reference dose] is conservative and protective of human health, and further reducing the perchlorate exposure below the RfD does not effectively lower risk.”

    Check out the NJ Drinking Water Quality Institute’s recommendations and the NJDEP Basis & Background document for the perchlorate proposal and note that NJDEP’s proposed 5 ppb MCL was based on EPA’s RfD. As I understand the science, NJDEP and NJDoH scientists have taken issue with how EPA applied their own RfD to infant exposure risk assessment as far as I can tell (I am not a toxicologist or risk assessor).

    Also note the above quoted comments from Massachusetts health officials regarding the OIG’s cumulative risk approach – I agree and I too support cumualtive risk asessment of multiple pollutants, but this is not an argument to increase expaosure to one because relatively it is not the risk driver.

    Last, the AWW iodide uptakes arguments don’t necessarily support relaxing perchlorate limits.

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