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EPA Reverses Course, Says It Won't Regulate Fireworks Chemical Polluting Mount Rushmore's Water

South Dakota Tourism

It’s been more than a decade since fireworks exploded over Mount Rushmore National Memorial, but a toxic chemical from those fireworks still pollutes the memorial’s well-water.  

The Environmental Protection Agency announced today it will not regulate that chemical, called “perchlorate,” despite previously saying it would. 

And now fireworks are returning to Mount Rushmore on July 3, raising the possibility that more of the chemical will pollute the memorial’s water. 

The EPA said today in a press release that perchlorate levels have been dropping nationwide thanks to federal, state and local action. Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a statement, "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.” 

An environmental watchdog group, the Natural Resources Defense Council, had sued to force the EPA to regulate perchlorate. As part of that lawsuit, the council and the EPA had agreed that the EPA would finalize a perchlorate regulation by this Friday.

The council’s senior strategic director for health, Erik Olson, issued a statement in response to the EPA’s decision.  

“Today’s decision is illegal, unscientific, and unconscionable,” Olson said. “The Environmental Protection Agency is threatening the health of pregnant moms and young children with toxic chemicals in their drinking water at levels that literally can cause loss of IQ points. Is this what the Environmental Protection Agency has come to?” 

Chemical found in Mount Rushmore's wells

At Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the perchlorate pollution was detected while Cheryl Schreier was superintendent. 

She worked with the U.S. Geologicial Survey on a study of the memorial’s water sources – not because she suspected perchlorate was a problem, but because she knew arsenic occurred naturally in the Black Hills, and she knew pesticides were  being used to protect trees at the memorial from mountain pine beetles.  

Schreier wanted to know if contaminants were seeping into the memorial’s wells. 

“Because we are a public entity,” she said, “we needed to make sure that water was safe for people to drink.” 

The Geological Survey’s study unexpectedly identified perchlorate as the main contaminant of concern. 

Galen Hoogestraat is a hydrologist with the Geological Survey and worked on the study. Back in February – before media requests about Mount Rushmore fireworks were redirected to the National Park Service and the state Tourism Department – Hoogestraat talked about the source of the pollution. 

“We just kind of used a little reasoning and a little elimination of potential sources to kind of associate, well, it’s most likely due to the fireworks,” he said. 

Hoogestraat published those findings four years ago. By then, Mount Rushmore had already stopped the fireworks displays.   

Fireworks shows were conducted at the memorial from 1998 to 2009.  Gov. Kristi Noem and President Donald Trump are bringing fireworks back to Mount Rushmore on July 3. 

The past shows spread debris from the exploded fireworks shells around the memorial, and firefighters had to put out forest fires from falling embers. 

For Schreier, the water pollution was the last straw. 

“Fireworks were not going to be a part of Mount Rushmore any further,” said Schreier, who retired last year. 

EPA agreed to finalize regulation

But Mount Rushmore isn’t the only place with perchlorate in its water. That’s because the chemical is not only in fireworks, but also in rocket fuel and weapons stored on military bases. It can also occur naturally. 

Olga Naidenko is a scientist with the Environmental Working Group. She said perchlorate inhibits the uptake of iodide by the thyroid gland. That can impair brain development. 

“Too little iodide is a problem, and perchlorate blocking iodide is also a problem,” Naidenko said. “And this is especially harmful for children and for the developing fetus, during pregnancy.” 

In 2011, the EPA decided perchlorate was a public health concern. That decision required the EPA to propose limits on perchlorate levels in public water systems. 

But five years passed, and the EPA didn't act. The Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit to force the EPA’s hand.  

The two sides eventually set a court-sanctioned deadline for the EPA to finalize a regulation on perchlorate. The EPA announcement today that it will not regulate perchlorate came one day before the deadline. 

Olson, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the EPA was pressured by the Defense Department and its contractors. 

“It’s because there are these bases all over the country that have used perchlorate in munitions or in rocket fuel,” Olson said. “And it’s contaminated a lot of the groundwater. And to do the cleanup would be expensive.” 

Olson said the council will challenge the EPA's refusal to comply with the court-sanctioned agreement requiring a final perchlorate regulation. 

“Stay tuned, I guess is what I would say,” Olson said. “We aren’t known for sitting around if an agency is clearly breaking a law or clearly violating a court order.” 

Perchlorate still in wells, fireworks

Meanwhile, there’s still perchlorate in Mount Rushmore’s wells. Last year, the National Park Service measured levels between 14 and 16 parts per billion. 

Those levels are lower than the limit the EPA was considering, which was 56 parts per billion. But they’re higher than limits in states with their own standards, which range from 2 to 6 parts per billion. 

Jennifer Sass, a scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said pregnant women and nursing mothers should be especially concerned about the water at Mount Rushmore. 

“Would I say avoid the water, bring your own? Yeah, I would,” Sass said. 

The Park Service does not remove perchlorate from the public water it provides at Mount Rushmore. Officials say there’s no long-term risk from a few drinks out of a water fountain. 

Sass isn’t so sure. 

“Experts have just sort of said they’re not comfortable saying there’s a safe level,” Sass said. “It’s like lead and mercury, which are also examples where during fetal development, nobody’s really comfortable saying it’s OK to have some lead.” 

The experts have the attention of some leaders in the fireworks industry. Jim Souza runs Pyro Spectaculars in California. The company does fireworks displays all over the country. 

“This whole perchlorate issue’s been around for a number of years and we’re aware of it, and so are the manufacturers around the world who are doing whatever they can to minimize it,” Souza said. “Yet it is a major ingredient in pyrotechnics.” 

In two weeks, Souza’s company will put on the fireworks display at Mount Rushmore. Gov. Kristi Noem and President Trump have both said they’ll attend. So will thousands of other people. No social-distancing will be enforced. 

After the show, Mount Rushmore officials say they’ll continue to measure perchlorate in the wells.  

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