Political Intelligence

Fuel For Thought


Got Rocket Fuel?

In Lubbock these days, they are growing the kids on milk laced with rocket fuel. It seems perchlorate, the explosive ingredient that gives rockets their get-up-and-go is not just for missiles anymore. You can find it in any grocery store in this South Plains city.

The news comes from a team of scientists at Texas Tech who published their findings recently in Environmental Science. The five scientists purchased different brands of milk at seven Lubbock-area supermarkets. The milk samples came from six different companies, effectively covering the available market. Four were packaged locally at the same plant and two at different plants outside Texas. Using two methods of analysis in separate labs, researchers discovered alarming levels of perchlorate in all seven samples tested. The concentrations ranged from 1.7 to 6.4 parts per billion. They also found perchlorate in one sample of breast milk, as well as in Lubbock’s drinking water, which had an average perchlorate concentration of 2.5 ppb.

All the amounts are higher than what reluctant federal regulators label as safe. The EPA has declared, in a draft standard in 2002, that an unsafe dosage is 1 ppb.

Perchlorate attacks the thyroid gland, and has been linked to a variety of cancers. The chemical dissolves easily in water. It poses the gravest threat to infants and fetuses. Too much exposure may cause neurological and other developmental damage, including autism.

The EPA has identified perchlorate releases in 20 states, including Texas. The problem began in the 1940s with the use of the chemical for rocketry. Since then, defense contractors and the armed forces have indiscriminately dumped the chemical while periodically flushing rocket fuselages. Cleaning the contamination will likely take hundreds of years and cost several billion dollars, according to the EPA.

Efforts to deal with the problem have been delayed by Pentagon intransigence, say environmentalists. Pentagon officials continue to insist that the chemical is not very dangerous. Behind the scenes, lobbying by Department of Defense officials has slowed EPA enforcement, stalling the setting of a strict standard for perchlorate contamination, says Bill Walker of the Environmental Working Group.

Walker says that since government regulators have been studying perchlorate, the numbers on what is a safe dosage have steadily gone down. He believes the present standard of 1 ppb should be lower to protect babies and fetuses. Yet the Bush Administration, rather than implement the EPA’s draft standard, has referred it to the National Academy of Science for further study. The NAS is expected to finish its review next year. Official EPA standards are not likely before 2008. “As a practical matter, it means the process is frozen,” says Walker.

While perchlorate contamination in the Waco area has been linked to a former Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant, the Texas Tech scientists don’t know the origin of the perchlorate contamination they found in Lubbock. A previous study by the scientists demonstrated that cattle feed crops such as alfalfa can absorb and concentrate perchlorate to high levels. The researchers have also documented perchlorate contamination of field-grown wheat, soybeans, strawberries, and cucumbers.

Dr. Ernest Smith, an associate professor involved in the Texas Tech study, cautions that their survey is too small to determine the extent of the contamination. There is clearly the need for a definitive study, he says, but the money for a broad investigation of Texas and adjoining states is not available.

Clark in the Park

The weather smiled on Gen. Wesley Clark’s first campaign appearance in Austin with a blast of fall sunshine. It was day 12 of the former NATO commander’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The incipient nature of the Clark campaign could be seen in the signs it distributed, urging people to “draft Clark.”

When the general marched onto the stage at downtown Wooldridge Park, he was joined by about a dozen state representatives. They ranged from south Texas stalwarts like Richard Raymond (D-Laredo) to East Texas good old boys like Barry Telford (D-DeKalb). To date, more than 19 state reps have endorsed the general, more than have backed any other candidate.

Clark delivered a short and fairly unpolished speech. He acknowledged that he is the newest Democrat in the race, but promised, “I’m going to bring a lot of other people over to the Democratic Party.”

The candidate blasted the Bush Administration for its economic and foreign policies. Even as his rhetorical guns blazed, the subtext of his attacks was an appeal to patriotism and a recognition of his own service. “I don’t see a government that embodies the principles I was fighting for during 34 years in uniform,” he said.

Before leaving for a series of Texas fundraisers, Clark promised to return. That same morning, presidential contender U.S. Sen. John Edwards was also fundraising in town. Sen. John Kerry was expected later in the week. In Texas, all are playing catch-up to Howard Dean. The Dean campaign, run here by former Austin state Rep. Glen Maxey, is far ahead in fundraising and organization.

Conventional wisdom has the Democratic nomination sewn up before the Texas primary scheduled for March 2. In this view, the most important contribution Texas can offer the Democratic hopefuls is money. But for many in the crowd, eager for a comeback, the hustings have brought new hope. “Between Clark and Dean we’ve got some energy in this party for the first time,” said Walter Hinojosa, political director of the Texas AFL-CIO.