The average household in the city of Rialto had a $9-a-month “perchlorate surcharge” on their water bills from 2004-2012 to cover the cost of dealing with polluters who contaminated the local groundwater.
Last Friday, the last in a long line of parties involved in litigation over decades of chemical dumping—testers and manufacturers of munitions, rocket motors and fireworks—settled (pdf) a lawsuit brought by the nearby city of Colton but argued by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The estate of Harry Hescox, late president of the long-departed Pyrotronics Corp., agreed to pay $11 million, half for cleanup and half to reimburse the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for services rendered at the 160-acre toxic site in San Bernardino County. The settlement recognizes that the defendant admits nothing:
“Settling Defendant does not admit, and specifically denies: (1) any liability arising out of the transaction and occurrences alleged . . . and (2) that the release or threatened release of Waste Material at or from the Rockets, Fireworks, and Flares Superfund Site . . . constitutes, contributed to or caused an imminent or substantial endangerment to the public health or welfare of the environment.”
Pyrotronics had built a concrete-lined pond on the site for dissolving its wastes containing perchlorate and other chemicals. The pond leaked and high concentrations of perchlorate were found beneath it. At least 20 public drinking wells in the area were forced to close years before the source of contamination was formally identified.
The EPA said the Hescox deal would be the last, following ones including: B.F. Goodrich Corp., KTI Inc., Black and Decker subsidiary Emhart Industries and Pyro Spectaculars Inc. KPCC put the cumulative pricetag for those deals at $50 million, but the cleanup is expected to be double that amount.
Part of the Hescox settlement money will be used as rebates for those who paid the “perchlorate surcharge.”
Defense contractors and companies that occupied the site after the U.S. government sold it in 1946 used perchlorate salts and other solvents, like trichloroethylene, in their manufacturing processes or products, according to the EPA. It poisoned wells and forced costly cleanup efforts. Perchlorate, the main ingredient in rocket fuel, is also present in ammunition, fireworks, highway safety flares, air bags and fertilizers. High doses can block iodine uptake to the thyroid gland, which can lead to a hypothyroid condition. Low exposure to perchlorate is widespread in the U.S.
It was determined that drinking water supplied to some residents of Rialto from 1979 to 1997 “may have had levels of perchlorate high enough to modestly impair iodine absorption by the thyroid gland,” according to the EPA. “It could not be determined if the levels were high enough to affect thyroid hormones.”
The EPA has not set a national standard for acceptable levels of percholate. The agency announced in 2011 that it would come up with one, but failed to make the two-year statutory deadline. It does not expect to issue a proposal until the end of this year and a final rule in September 2015.