The Guardian 9 February, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Let them drink rocket fuel

How much rocket fuel do you drink every day? Not much, I trust.

You could say it was a purely facetious question. Except that people in the United States have cause not to think so. They are not suggesting that Pentagon agents sneak around in the middle of the night secretly pouring drums of rocket fuel into reservoirs. But that's more or less the effect of what is happening.

Rocket fuel and explosives contain a particularly toxic chemical called ammonium perchlorate. Exposure to this nasty stuff causes thyroid tumours.

It is especially dangerous for children and pregnant women.

Back in 2002, the USA's Environmental Protection Agency ruled that drinking water could not contain more than one part per billion of perchlorate. But to the Bush administration, the EPA is a haven of "liberals", people who are unduly influenced by Greenies and other anti-business types.

The EPA, they moan, is prone to make decisions like the one on ammonium perchlorate, without taking into account the serious consequences the decision could have on business.

Limiting perchlorate in drinking water to a measly one part per billion, for example, meant the Pentagon was faced with massive bills for cleanup, for the military you see are nothing if not messy.

In fact, if you add the Pentagon's spills and leaks of rocket fuel and explosive materials at military bases (of which there are lots in the US) to the spills and leaks of military contractors (of which there are even more) you end up with an appalling rate of contamination.

People's Weekly World, the paper of the Communist Party of the USA, reported in January that "there are millions of pounds of this toxin [ammonium perchlorate] in drinking water and soil nationwide" across the USA.

The multi-billion dollar Defence contractors don't want to spend a penny to clean it up; the Pentagon won't spend a penny to clean it up. In Nevada, a state that is rife with Defence installations and contractors, one of the latter is suing the Pentagon for the cost of the company's cleanup program at Defence sites in the state.

Kerr McGee has spent some US$80 million so far on cleaning up just one installation near Lake Mead. From this site alone Kerr McGee collects more than 500 pounds of perchlorate from groundwater every day.

That's actually an improvement; four years ago it seems they were collecting 1000 pounds of the deadly toxin every day!

The thing is, as People's Weekly World reports, this area supplies drinking water to 20 million Americans, including all of southern Nevada.

Millions of Californians also get their water from Nevada. California has its own standard for permissible perchlorate contamination of water: six times higher than the EPA standard. (I wonder if all those tourists visiting Hollywood realise this?)

The military-industrial complex (the combine of the Defence industries and the Pentagon brass) were livid at the EPA standard (and the expense it put them to) and pressed the Administration for "a new study" by some other agency, of course.

The Bush White House, ever concerned for the well-being and comfort of big corporations, obediently got a panel of the National Academy of Sciences to do a new study. And lo and behold, on 20th January this year the NAS panel announced findings radically more favourable to the defence industries than those of the EPA.

Isn't that just amazing? Who would have expected that, eh?

According to the NAS panel's report, drinking water can contain more than 20 times the amount of perchlorate that the EPA allowed. It means savings of billions of dollars to the defence contractors and the Pentagon.

It's a bit rough on the poor buggers drinking the water, though, wouldn't you say?

Environmental lobby group, the Natural Resources Defence Council, bitterly asserted the obvious: "the White House, Pentagon and its contractors were able to unduly influence the Academy.

"We've never seen such a brazen campaign to pressure the National Academy of Sciences to downplay the hazards of a chemical, but it fits the pattern of this Administration manipulating science at the expense of public health."

But even this easy victory for the military and its corporate suppliers is not enough for the Bushites. The White House is campaigning for major military installations to be made exempt from all environmental regulations.

That way, the Pentagon, the Administration and the defence contractors would all be let off the hook: they could be as careless and as reckless as they liked, pollute away to their heart's content, and they could not be held accountable.

They would none of them have to pay for any cleanup. Only in America!

Meanwhile, if you go there, I suggest you drink only imported wines or whiskey. If the latter, don't put any water with it!

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