updated 6/22/2005 1:17:33 PM ET 2005-06-22T17:17:33

The Pentagon at times refused to conduct tests for a toxic chemical when environmental regulators said such tests were needed, congressional investigators said in a report Tuesday.

The report drew a stinging Pentagon response criticizing it as “factually incorrect and fundamentally flawed.”

The General Accountability Office study of contamination from perchlorate — an ingredient in rocket fuel and other defense manufacturing that has been found to interfere with thyroid function — said it was found in at least 395 sites in 35 states.

The study said Defense Department activities are a leading cause of the contamination. It also said Pentagon policies require testing for the chemical only under limited circumstances, such as when there is a reasonable likelihood of human exposure.

In a number of cases, the GAO says, the Pentagon refused state or federal requests to conduct sampling. For example, Utah state officials reported that the Defense Department had refused its request to sample at an Army base where perchlorate had been used for 20 years, saying there wasn’t a clear potential for human exposure.

“The report mischaracterizes DOD’s response to perchlorate, a chemical which is unregulated by the federal government and for which no state has promulgated standards,” said Philip W. Grone, a Defense Department assistant deputy undersecretary for environmental issues.

Grone said the Pentagon has tested at 800 sites and spent more than $40 million to develop cleanup techniques.

The GAO also said a formal system to monitor perchlorate detections and cleanup nationwide was needed because there is no standardized approach for reporting contamination. As a result, the pollution may be even more widespread than is now known, the report said.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Pentagon said a formal system was unnecessary.

“The benefits of a new, large and complex system are unclear,” Barry N. Breen, EPA principal deputy assistant administrator, wrote in a response letter included in the GAO report. “EPA already has significant information and data on perchlorate concentrations.”

The Pentagon is facing lawsuits and potential litigation from communities nationwide that are fighting to rid their water supplies of perchlorate, though there is disagreement about what levels are dangerous.

The GAO report offered perhaps the most comprehensive accounting to date of contamination from the chemical, which was little-known before 1997 when tests were developed that could detect it at low levels.

Of the 395 sites GAO identified, California and Texas accounted for more than half.

Cleanup is planned or under way at just 51 of the sites, the report said. It attributed the low number mainly to the fact that there is no federal requirement to limit perchlorate in water supplies. EPA is considering whether to issue such a regulation.

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