In late September, outgoing California Gov. Gray Davis signed two bills into law to protect drinking water supplies from perchlorate, a toxic chemical used in rocket fuel and explosives (HCN, 4/28/03: Cold War toxin seeps into Western water). It could be 2008 before the federal Environmental Protection Agency sets a maximum contaminant level for perchlorate, which can disrupt hormone production and harm developing fetuses, infants and nursing mothers. In the meantime, states are largely left to deal with the problem on their own.

“We’re hoping these laws are a start,” says Liz Kanter of the California State Water Resources Control Board. “Perchlorate is one of the big, bad water pollutants and we need to get a handle on it.”

Under the new laws, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control is required to develop a plan for cleaning up perchlorate contamination by 2006. But the laws also put some of the onus on military installations, chemical companies and other polluters; they would order anyone who disposed of the chemical after 1950 to report to the State Water Resources Control Board. Polluters are also responsible for replacing contaminated water with clean supplies.

“It’s far cheaper to provide clean drinking water than to have class action suits,” says state Department of Toxic Substances spokesman Ron Baker.

But the new bills do not require the U.S. Department of Defense — which is pushing for exemption from cleanup liability at the federal level — to report sites where perchlorate is presently used, or where it may be used in the future.