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EPA won’t regulate chemical in fireworks that pollutes groundwater surrounding Mount Rushmore

EPA won’t regulate chemical in fireworks that pollutes groundwater surrounding Mount Rushmore

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Rushmore Fireworks

In this July 5, 1998 photo, fireworks light up Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The fireworks will return on July 3, 2020 after an 11-year hiatus. President Donald Trump plans to attend this year's display.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a final action Thursday stating that perchlorate, a chemical that was found in 2016 to contaminate the groundwater surrounding Mount Rushmore after previous fireworks displays, doesn’t meet criteria for regulation as a drinking water contaminant.

Perchlorate is commonly used in solid rocket propellants, munitions, fireworks, matches and signal flares, and has been linked to brain damage in infants. The EPA rejected warnings Thursday that the agency’s reversal will mean lower IQs for newborns. Perchlorate from runoff also contaminates the drinking water of as many as 16 million Americans.

A 2016 U.S. Geological Survey found that several chemicals in fireworks, most prominently perchlorate, had leaked into Mount Rushmore’s groundwater. The highest concentration of the contaminant was found in the West Fork Lafferty Basin and in soil where the fireworks were known to have launched.

The state’s tourism department says in an FAQ for the July 3 fireworks event at Mount Rushmore, which President Trump is set to attend, that perchlorates do exist in the water and the levels are tested on a regular basis.

“Levels of perchlorate have attenuated over time since fireworks discharges ceased in 2009,” the department states, adding that a monitoring program would be implemented to analyze water and soil samples before and after the fireworks event.

The fireworks contractor Pyro Spectaculars, a California company, is set to produce the 18-minute July 3 show for up to $350,000.

The company is required to “thoroughly remove fireworks debris and unexploded ordnance, which would greatly reduce the introduction of contaminants in environmental media, and would be encouraged to use cleaner, more completely burning fireworks than those used in the past,” the department states.

An estimated 3 million visitors a year may have sampled the tainted water at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, where the USGS found .20 to 38 parts per billion of the contaminant was in the groundwater in 2016. The EPA then recommended that levels not exceed 15 parts per billion.

Perchlorate, when ingested at high levels over a long period of time, has also been known to affect human thyroid function, the 2016 environmental assessment said. A project leader for the assessment said there’s not an acute risk for one-time visitors who drink the water.

The agency is withdrawing its 2011 regulatory determination under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), and won’t issue a national regulation for perchlorate at this time.

“Today’s decision is built on science and local success stories and fulfills President Trump’s promise to pare back burdensome ‘one-size-fits-all’ overregulation for the American people,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. 

“State and local water systems are effectively and efficiently managing levels of perchlorate,” Wheeler added. “Our state partners deserve credit for their leadership on protecting public health in their communities, not unnecessary federal intervention.”

The EPA also performed a new health impact analysis based on recommendations from the Science Advisory Board, finding that the concentrations at which perchlorate may present a public health concern are higher than the concentrations considered in its 2011 regulatory determination, the EPA said in a press release.

Administrator Andrew Wheeler's announcement was the latest in a series of Trump administration rollbacks or eliminations of existing or pending public health and environmental protections, targeting Obama administration initiatives in particular. The Trump administration says the regulations are burdensome to business and are unnecessary.

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