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Bush Gang Proposes Lower Standard for Toxic Metal Contaminating Fish & Wildlife

Sacramento Bee (California)

Battle over toxic metal

EPA appears set to relax standards for selenium, which led to deformities in
waterfowl in 1980s.

By Stuart Leavenworth -- Bee Staff Writer
August 31, 2004

Over the objections of several federal scientists, the Bush administration
is preparing to relax national standards for selenium - a toxic metal that
caused mass deformities of water fowl in California's Central Valley during
the 1980s.

The revised U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards are outlined in
an EPA draft notice obtained by The Bee.

Critics say the proposed standards are based on a study that even its
author says was interpreted improperly. The standards follow years of
lobbying by power companies, Valley farming interests and mining officials,
all of whom say the current federal standards are overly restrictive.

EPA officials declined to comment on the dispute Monday, saying they
haven't made a final decision on the rule. "The notice you have is a draft.
Until it is signed, it is not final," said Cathy Milbourne, an EPA
spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.

Scientists in other federal agencies, however, say it has been clear for
weeks the EPA plans to adopt a selenium standard favored by industry and
opposed by government biologists. The rule-making process has been
controversial since 2002, when the EPA hired a contractor with long-standing
ties to some industries seeking relief.

Under the EPA draft notice, the agency plans to control long-term selenium
toxicity by switching from a water-based standard to a fish-based standard.
Industries would be allowed to discharge into waters until selenium reached
a concentration of 7.91 parts per million in fish. EPA contends those levels
will be safe for fish and most wildlife. Several non-industry scientists

Joseph Skorupa, a researcher with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says
studies show birds lose 10 percent of their offspring after eating food
containing 4 parts per million selenium.

"At 8 parts per million, we are talking about a situation where more than
50 percent of the eggs would fail to hatch," said Skorupa, who has
investigated selenium poisonings for more than two decades.

In recent months, Skorupa and other scientists have been alerting EPA
officials to what they call "fatal flaws" in evaluating selenium.

"We thought they would go back and modify their criteria," said Dennis
Lemly, a scientist with the U.S. Forest Service's Southern Research Station
in Virginia. "So far, they haven't done that."

Industry scientists say their research indicates selenium is less toxic
than some biologists claim. They also say EPA's current method of regulating
selenium - limiting levels to 5 parts per billion in water - is costly to
certain businesses.

"The power industry believes the 7.9 (parts per million) standard is more
scientifically defensible than the current one," said Rob Reash, a biologist
who works for Ohio-based American Electrical Power, the largest electrical
generator in the country.

He said power companies could save millions of dollars if the proposed
standard is adopted.

A natural element, selenium is considered to be beneficial in small
quantities, but can be poisonous as it builds up in the food chain. That
threat was illustrated vividly in the 1980s, when scientists started
documenting hundreds of deformed and dying birds at the Kesterson National
Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos.

Federal biologists, including Skorupa, tracked the poisonings to selenium
runoff to upstream farms, and have continued to document less-dramatic
poisonings from the Central Valley to the Delta.

Following the Kesterson episode, EPA set a water-based standard for
selenium - 5 parts per billion - and started to regulate industries that
discharge the metal in their wastewater.

It's a big job. Across the country, selenium is released by phosphate mines
in Idaho and copper mines in Utah. It drains from the piles of leftover ash
at coal-burning power plants. It has been found downstream of mountaintop
mining operations in West Virginia, and is in irrigation water across much
of the West.

Documents obtained by the Public Education Center, a nonprofit research
group, show industries have lobbied for relaxed selenium standards over
several years, even as the Fish and Wildlife Service has pushed for tougher

Since 1980, the power industry has spent about $10 million on selenium
research, helping to fund several studies that discount the threats to
wildlife, according to the Public Education Center.

Hoping to sidestep disputes about its water standard, the EPA announced in
2001 it would start using fish concentrations, instead of water, to regulate
selenium. Although scientists on both sides supported this approach, they
quickly differed on EPA's choice of a consultant to lead the project - the
Great Lakes Environmental Center.

Since 2001, the Michigan-based consulting firm has worked for several power
companies and trade associations, including American Electrical Power and
the Electric Power Research Institute.

Even more worrisome, say scientists for Fish and Wildlife and the U.S.
Geological Survey, is that the Great Lakes Environmental Center made
significant mistakes in proposing a selenium standard for fish.

In calculating a proposed standard, the Great Lakes center relied on a
study by Lemly that examined selenium uptake and survival in blue gill, a
common fish. But according to Lemly and Skorupa, the consultant misread the
Lemly study and assumed he had studied 210 fish throughout the experiment.
Lemly had removed 60 fish during two phases of the tests, meaning the
survival rate was much lower than the consultant had assumed.

"The Great Lakes Environmental Center made some fairly egregious errors,"
said Lemly in a telephone interview.

Had the consultant correctly interpreted his study, he said, the
appropriate standard should be closer to 4 parts per million instead of

Officials for the Great Lake center couldn't be reached Monday. Nor could
Charles Delos, who is heading the selenium criteria changes for the EPA.

Several months ago, Delos received a paper from five scientists criticizing
the EPA's methodology, said Skorupa, who authored the paper along with
Lemly, Theresa Presser of the U.S. Geological Survey and two others.

According to the EPA draft notice, the agency acknowledges its proposed
standard is "not necessarily designed to protect all terrestrial wildlife."
On a separate track, the EPA is developing selenium criteria for California,
although it is not known when those standards will be ready.

Some California farm interests are lobbying for changes. The fish-based
standard of 7.9 parts per million "is an important step towards a more
reasonable selenium standard," the San Joaquin Valley Drainage Authority
wrote EPA in 2002.

In West Virginia, industries conducting mountaintop mining also are urging
regulators to adopt the 7.9 ppm standard. Some industries are having trouble
complying with the current standard, said Jason Bostic, regulatory affairs
specialists for the West Virginia Coal Association.

Bostic said he was unsure if selenium was building up in wildlife
downstream of those mines. "We don't know," he said. "Selenium is very new
for us."

About the Writer

The Bee's Stuart Leavenworth can be reached at (916) 321-1185 or