Perchlorate — a rocket fuel stabilizer found at military and defense contractor sites (and increasingly in drinking water sources) around the country — is among the more notorious chemicals in the Pentagon’s inventory, because it is known to disrupt the thyroid development of fetuses and the thyroid operation of adults. Found in the drinking water of tens of millions of Americans, it prevents the body from uptaking iodide, which can lead to childhood developmental impairment and improper metabolism. What is not known, as with many substances, is the exact dose that presents a health risk. Without that information, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has spent years debating whether to set an enforceable regulatory standard for perchlorate, a debate that continues to this day and has come to include voices from the Pentagon and other regulated entities with a vested financial interest in the outcome.
When asked why he challenged EPA’s health research on perchlorate during his tenure — initiating a lengthy review process that continues to this day — Ray DuBois, the Bush-era Pentagon’s top environmental official for more than three years, said he depended on the advice of his chemical policy expert, Shannon Cunniff. In his telling, her analysis of “conflicting science” led him to reject a draft EPA assessment showing that health and environmental limits for perchlorate might need to be tightened. During an extensive interview with DCBureau.org, he often highlighted her role in the process, emphasizing that no one else on his staff had a chemical policy background.
The problem with this account is that Cunniff says none of it is true. Indeed, as the timeline shows, DuBois only hired her after the decision to challenge the studies was already made. By the time Cunniff joined his staff, an outside party was already deep into a lengthy and expensive reassessment of EPA’s research at the military’s behest. Since Cunniff was not part of the decision to reject EPA’s findings, the military made that call — by DuBois’ own reasoning — without anyone on his staff qualified to support it scientifically.
DuBois certainly never shied away from confrontation, whether between governmental agencies or with Congress. During his tenure, he initiated an ambitious effort aimed at exempting the military from a wide variety of environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act (ESA) — a campaign so unprecedented in its scope that some aspects were rejected even by Republican leaders in Congress. Perhaps most controversially, a Pentagon office he created called the Emerging Contaminants Directorate (ECD) greatly expanded the military’s role in national- and state-level environmental regulation and quickly became a major player in federal efforts to study and potentially restrict emerging contaminants — substances that environmental officials fear could be harmful but have not yet been regulated.
During the interview, DuBois made no apologies for his role in promoting the Pentagon’s interests at the potential expense of the EPA, which has historically made scientific and policy decisions without other agencies’ input. Environmental watchdog groups and some Congressional Democrats have long charged, with a good amount of supporting evidence, that since DuBois took office, military officials have intentionally hampered EPA efforts to restrict the use of chemicals deemed “mission critical” by the Pentagon. They also charge that DOD, fearing the potential remediation costs that new health standards could generate, has stalled attempts to assess the risks of chemicals currently found at military-related cleanup sites around the country, including pushing for the creation of a non-EPA scientific review panel with conflict-of-interest issues to slow the pace of perchlorate regulation. The ECD — recently renamed the Chemical and Material Risk Management Directorate, and headed by Cunniff from the outset — has been at the center of this debate.
“The Defense Department under both Democratic and Republican administrations was usually in a reactive mode,” DuBois said of the situation that greeted him when he took the job. “I don’t know for a fact that DOD or the services or the aerospace and defense industry privately never thought proactively, never said, ‘Is using this chemical compound going to create a problem?’ Maybe they did. All I know is that when I took over the Installations and Environment portfolio, two major problems were presented to me. The first one was encroachment” — the proximity of civilians to military property, which can affect how land is used — “and the second was emerging contaminants, although we didn’t call it that at the time. It could be the way we, the Army in particular but the military in general, dealt with motor pools. What did you do when you changed oil and other lubricants in an engine for a tank, truck or jeep? Fifty years ago you tossed it and washed down the cement slab and it went somewhere. It’s very important to recognize that what was considered acceptable in the past, either in terms of flushing these kinds of things or remediating them, the deleterious downsides were either unknown or uncared about.”
DuBois said that although many observers were skeptical of Bush’s environmental policies, he himself accomplished more than his Clinton-era predecessors because of his willingness to take political risks. “To me it was immaterial who created the [environmental] problems. The problem was the problem” — and his job was to fix the problem, end of story. That had some unintended consequences: “The private sector said, ‘Oh, we like this guy because he’ll pay for it,’ whatever the cleanup is. And my answer to that is, not exactly. You have the well-established public policy of taxing polluting industries for purposes of present and future cleanup called. . . .” He held out his hand a moment trying to think of the answer.
“Superfund, thank you. Therefore there is a policy that you, the public sector, are going to pay for this by virtue of the taxes that Congress has designated. I said I don’t want to get involved in that. Congress can increase or decrease that, however they want to handle it. What I’m more concerned about is the science underlying the public health hazard or potential hazard.”
Critics in and outside the government argued he was more concerned about confounding the science than clarifying it. Either way, he would tackle these issues with singular fervor over the next several years.