Fireworks at Mt. Rushmore contaminated water supply

Investigates

Originally reported on May 8, 2019.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The news came out nationally in the form of a presidential tweet. President Trump praised Governor Kristi Noem for bringing “the big fireworks” back to Mount Rushmore for an Independence Day celebration in 2020.

The elaborate fireworks displays took place for 12 years, but the practice was stopped in 2009 due to the threat of forest fire in the Black Hills because of the pine beetle infestation.

Between 1998 and 2009 to celebrate the Fourth of July, tons of fireworks were set off over the top of the memorial. While it seemed a fitting display at one of the most patriotic monuments in the U.S., a federal investigation found it was filling the water around Mt. Rushmore with a toxic chemical. 

“Past firework displays are the most probable source of perchlorate contamination at Mount Rushmore,” Galen Hoogestraat said in a USGS video in 2016.

That was a Rapid City hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.  In 2011 the USGS began testing the water at Mt Rushmore and found high concentrations of perchlorate in groundwater and streams around the monument. 

Perchlorate is a common component in rocket fuels, fireworks, explosives, and also a byproduct in certain nitrogen fertilizers,” Hoogestraat said in a USGS video in 2016.

At high levels, the Centers for Disease Control says perchlorate can interfere with the thyroid gland.  
An EPA health advisory sets a “maximum” concentration of perchlorate at 15 micrograms per liter of water. In the study released in 2016, Hydrologists found 38 micrograms per liter in the groundwater and 54 micrograms per liter in a stream sample—270 times higher than that in samples collected outside the memorial.

Three million visitors consume drinking water at the memorial every year and park workers consume it year-round.

The USGS says dynamite that was used to blast the memorial in the 1930s is not a likely source of the perchlorate.

We asked the National Park Service at Mt. Rushmore about an upcoming fireworks display for next summer and potential threat to the drinking water for visitors.  

“On May 6, 2019 the Department of the Interior and the State of South Dakota signed an agreement to work to reinstate a fireworks display at Mount Rushmore National Memorial for Fourth of July celebrations starting in the year 2020.  The National Park Service is committed to working with the State and other land management agencies, exercising our full authorities under state and federal law, to explore and develop safe and responsible options in regard to the proposal.

This is the first step in a process, additional information will be available in the future”

— Maureen McGee-Ballinger, Chief of Interpretation and Education, Mount Rushmore National Memorial

According to Joshua Shields of Governor Kristi Noem’s office, “There have been advances in how fireworks are made. They’re safer and better for the environment than in years past. Specifically they are now making fireworks perchlorate-free. The goal is to make this show as safe and environmentally-friendly as possible.”

American Pyrotechnics Association Executive Director Julie Heckman tells KELOLAND Investigates that while perchlorate-free fireworks are made, they aren’t as pretty or vibrant. Heckman also disputes that a once-a-year fireworks display could contaminate the water and says the perchlorate must have come from another source. 

Page 9 of Rushmore Water

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