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Rocket (Fuel) Man

In the Senate, Richard Bryan worked to safeguard Nevada's water supply. Then he became a lobbyist for the chemical firms that contaminated it.

| Fri Feb. 13, 2009 9:00 AM EST

A decade ago, Nevada's congressional delegation won a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to fund drinking-water improvements in rural areas of the state. The aim was to ensure the water supply in these locales was free of dangerous levels of various chemicals, including the rocket-fuel additive perchlorate, a potential health hazard. The amount of money was modest—$12.5 million—but that didn't stop the state's federal legislators from crowing about their accomplishment. Richard Bryan, one of Nevada's two Democratic senators at the time, proudly declared that Nevadans had a right "to safe, clean drinking water."

Ten years later, Bryan was a lobbyist for manufacturers of perchlorate.

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How this happened is yet another tale of Washington's ever-spinning revolving door, which can turn politicians who pushed environmental initiatives into influence-peddlers for polluters. And in the new Washington governed by President Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress, K Streeters with Democratic credentials are poised to exploit their party ties more than ever. As they work their connections on Capitol Hill and at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, these administration-friendly lobbyists will pose a challenge to the new president, who vowed to change the pay-to-play ways of the nation's capital.

For years, perchlorate, a primary ingredient in propellant for rockets and missiles, has been the subject of fierce regulatory wrestling in Washington. After leaking from military bases and manufacturing sites, the substance has been found in tap water, groundwater, surface water, and soil across the nation. Up to 40 million Americans may have perchlorate in their water supplies, according to one analysis of EPA data. The chemical has been detected in lettuce, milk, spinach, and human breast milk. Health studies indicate that it can affect the thyroid, potentially causing long-lasting neurological impairments for infants. For this reason, environmental and clean-water advocates have been urging federal action for years.

In 2007 and 2008, the fight in Washington over perchlorate appeared to be coming to a head. With the Defense Department and past and current perchlorate manufacturers trying to stave off controls on the chemical, the EPA was considering setting drinking-water standards for the substance, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) were pushing bills that would force the EPA to do so.

To fight back, four perchlorate firms hired a bevy of lobbyists, including Bryan, who had left the Senate in 2001 to become one. Bryan's mission, according to Senate disclosure forms, was to sway rule making at the EPA in his clients' favor and to do the same regarding the pending legislation in Congress. In 2007 and 2008, he and a colleague at the Nevada-based law firm of Lionel, Sawyer & Collins, pulled in at least $200,0000 in lobbying fees for their work.

Bryan declined to be interviewed about how he assisted the perchlorate crowd. But whatever he and his comrades did, they apparently did it well. Legislation was blocked, and the EPA, in one of the Bush administration's so-called midnight regulatory decisions, opted not to issue any federal standard safeguarding drinking water from perchlorate contamination.

Bryan entered the fray late in the long-running battle. For decades prior to passage of clean-water laws in the 1970s, defense firms routinely dumped perchlorate, used in rocket fuel to generate an intense burn, into the ground and waterways. The substance has tainted water supplies in at least 26 states, including New York, Texas, California, and Nevada, according to the EPA. (In 1976, Aerojet, which operated a missile plant in California, was pouring its toxic waste into unlined pits in the ground.) In 2002, the EPA issued a draft assessment noting that perchlorate was dangerous to humans, especially infants, and suggested a safe standard would be one part per billion for drinking water. (At the time, the Colorado River, a major source of drinking water, contained about seven parts per billion.) By this point, according to the Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon and several defense contractors had spent $30 million on research designed to persuade the EPA that perchlorate posed no significant risks at low levels of exposure. Neither the Defense Department nor the contractors wanted to be on the hook for what could be several billions of dollars in cleanup costs.

During the George W. Bush years, perchlorate became yet another one of those contentious environmental fights. You know the drill: Government scientists say this, industry says that, and guess which way the White House leans? With the Pentagon pushing for no action, the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget intervened to slow down the EPA's regulatory process, and the EPA slapped a gag order on its scientists and employees, ordering them not to discuss perchlorate publicly. Partly in response to this clash between the EPA and the Defense Department, Bush's OMB set up a new procedure that, according to a General Accountability Office report [PDF], allowed the White House and the Pentagon to regularly hinder the EPA's overall effort to assess chemical risks.

A 2005 National Academy of Sciences report [PDF] said that it was safe for people to consume drinking water containing up to 24.5 parts per billion of perchlorate. (This was greater than the EPA proposal, but much less than the Pentagon's suggested standard of 200 parts per billion.) Subsequently, the EPA recommended the 24.5 ppb standard. But it encountered harsh criticism from scientists and environmentalists who argued that this level did not take into account the impact of such a dose on infants. Still, there was no actual federal regulation, and the EPA continued to work on determining whether issuing one was necessary. Meanwhile, the Pentagon deferred any extensive cleanup program. ("We heard of an Air Force base that wanted to test for perchlorate," says a congressional aide following the issue. "They thought they had it in their groundwater. The DOD said, 'Don't test.'") As the feds did nothing, states set their own limits; California proposed a six parts per billion rule, and Massachusetts established a more stringent two ppb standard.

In early 2007, with the EPA slowed down, Boxer and Solis each introduced legislation that would compel the agency to impose a strict perchlorate drinking-water standard. In doing so, they went up against the Pentagon and a band of chemical industry lobbyists. At the time, Bryan and his former-legislator director, Brent Heberlee (who years earlier had also become a lobbyist), had been retained by Aerojet, Alliant Techsystems (an aerospace conglomerate that has Utah facilities linked to perchlorate contamination), American Pacific Corporation (a major producer of perchlorate for space and defense programs), and Tronox (a chemical company spun off from Kerr-McGee, which had owned a plant in Nevada associated with a plume of perchlorate-contaminated groundwater). Their fee, according to congressional lobbying records, was about $10,000 a quarter. Two years prior, Bryan and Heberlee had been hired by Kerr-McGee to work on perchlorate issues.

Almost 20 years before going to work for the manufacturers, Bryan had become familiar with one hazard of the compound. In 1988, when he was governor of Nevada, a factory 10 miles outside of Las Vegas that produced perchlorate exploded in a tremendous blast that left a 400-foot crater and flattened an industrial park. Two people were killed and three hundred were injured. A marshmallow factory next door was destroyed in the blaze. Noting that the destruction could easily have been worse, Bryan declared, "We may have a miracle on our hands here." Later that year, Bryan was elected to the Senate, and one of his first acts in Washington was to join with his fellow Nevada senator and close friend Harry Reid to introduce legislation to use federal land in southern Nevada for the development of an industrial facility where perchlorate could be manufactured away from populated areas.

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