Tapping Into Toxic Water -- Special Reports - 8 News NOW

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George Knapp, I-Team Reporter

Tapping Into Toxic Water -- Special Reports

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(May 6) -- It's a sobering thought -- the water that pours out of valley taps has elements of rocket fuel in it. Ammonium perchlorate to be exact, a toxic substance known to cause serious health problems.

Scientists don't yet agree on what level of perchlorate consumption is safe for humans, but all sides seem to agree that our water supply needs to be cleaned up. The question is -- who is going to pay for it?

Lake Mead has had varying levels of perchlorate in its waters for decades, although no one seemed to notice until 1997. Since then, the state has been working with the Kerr McGee company to clean it up. But, there's one party that hasn't stepped up to the plate -- the Department of Defense, which was the owner and principal client for the plants that made the perchlorate in the first place.

The Pentagon has shown no interest in helping to clean up the water that it helped to pollute. At a gated facility near the Las Vegas Wash, workers are treating groundwater with a special resin designed to capture minute particles of perchlorate.

"We're treating 400 gallons a minute at this location. It's called an ion exchange system, and once groundwater is treated, it's allowed to travel on its way to Lake Mead, free of perchlorate," said Pat Corbett, Kerr-McGee Corporation.

But the question is--how did components of rocket fuel get into the water in the first place? the twisted tale begins in World War II. The massive BMI complex in Henderson was created to help win the war against the Nazi's.

After the war, the BMI plants began making ammonium perchlorate, used as a propellent for jet aircraft, missiles, eventually, the space shuttle, all programs considered vital by the Dept. of Defense, which owned BMI.

"They owned them from 1951 to 1962. There were other contractual agreements which required us to continue to provide perchlorate for the government for a number of years, into the 70's I believe. But in the days before environmental laws existed, chemical wastes from the manufacturing process were funneled thru unlined troughs into holding ponds. Perchlorate percolated down into the soil. No one knows how much," said Corbett.

Corbett admitted to investigative reporter George Knapp that it would difficult to know how much went into the ground, but it was a significant loss based on the amount Kerr McGee is collecting.

Every day, Kerr McGee collects more than 500 pounds of perchlorate from groundwater. That's a positive step. Four years ago, the amount was close to 1000 pounds per day. The company has spent $80 million so far to keep perchlorate out of Lake Mead.

The effort has been supervised by Nevada environmental officials who've also been working with the former Pepcon plant, which also produced perchlorate. But there's one player that has yet to step up to the plate -- the Pentagon.

When Knapp asked if there had been any discussions between the state and Department of Defense? Terre Maize of the division of environmental protection responded, "to the best of my knowledge, no."

"We've gone to the Navy and pointed it out, tried to get their involvement. They have yet to be forthcoming," said Corbett. Tired of waiting for the Pentagon to pitch in, Kerr McGee is suing the government. Add to the mix this development in Washington. The Bush administration will ask that certain defense installations be made exempt from environmental regulations, a move that some say could take the feds off the hook for the Henderson cleanup.

The federal EPA is currently studying what the legal level for perchlorate should be. If health studies show it should be drastically lowered, the costs of the cleanup could soar even higher. Environmentalists argue that we need to be on the safe side when it comes to our drinking water.

"A lot of debate about who is responsible. The environmental community view is, it needs sto be cleaned up right away. Maybe it's government or maybe it's industry or maybe both. It's an important chemical, no question about that. But the production wasn't done for charitable purposes. It was done for a tidy profit. Right now the big loser is the public," said Dan Geary, environmental activist.

The public is looking for a stop to the squabbling about who will pay for it and to start the process. The Pentagon has shown no interest in helping pay for the cleanup. Senator Harry Reid and other lawmakers are putting pressure on defense officials to pitch in. No movement so far. An intense debate is underway, as well as an EPA study on what the safety level for perchlorate should be.

If it gets lowered significantly, the cost for cleanup could run into the billions. But we're talking about the drinking water supply for 20 million Americans, including all of southern Nevada.

Currently, the EPA suggests that the perchlorate should not exceed 18 parts-per-billion in the water. Lake mead water has been slightly above that level at times, but is currently around 10 Parts-per-billion.

Some are pushing for a standard of only one-part-per billion in the water. Reaching that level at Lake Mead would be a very tall order. 

Related Links:

Perchlorate in Local Drinking Water
An EPA official declares, "Perchlorate is toxic.  It damages your thyroid. It's in our water.  It should be cleaned up."  Ammonium perchlorate is a main ingredient in rocket fuel, and it's manufactured right here in Nevada.  How much is safe in your water?  A George Knapp investigative report. Wednesday 6PM on Channel 8, Eyewitness News.

 

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