A little attention from the media helped thwart an attempt by the federal government to do a favor for the mining industry at the expense of fish and birds.
In question is
the metal selenium, which is a byproduct of coal- and
phosphate-mining, copper-smelting and agriculture. At low levels,
selenium is an essential nutrient for healthy immune systems, but
at higher levels it can be toxic, as scientists found at
California’s Kesterson Wildlife Refuge in the 1980s. There,
high levels of selenium from agricultural runoff killed and
deformed thousands of waterbirds.
In 1998, the EPA ruled
that levels of selenium in water could not exceed 5 parts per
billion. But in March 2002, the EPA proposed a new standard that
would be measured in fish tissue, rather than in water samples; the
new standard would be a much higher 7.9 parts per million, levels
that the agency admitted would kill one-fifth of all fish. "For
some reason known only to them, their goal was 20 percent
mortality," says Joseph Skorupa, a selenium expert with the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service. "We wrote a letter saying this
isn’t suitable under the Endangered Species Act."
Researchers then realized fish mortality would be even higher
because the EPA had made a mathematical error: With concentrations
of 7.9 ppm in their bodies, more than 60 percent of the fish would
But by early 2004, coal-mining companies were
pressing the EPA to move ahead. In July, the EPA released another
draft, still pushing the 7.9 standard.
Skorupa, before the EPA could finalize the rule in late August as
planned, an article about the selenium standard appeared in the
Sacramento (Calif.) Bee. After outcries from the public and
politicians such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the EPA pulled
"We received some additional information that we
wanted to take a look at and consider and review before we put out
a final notice," says Cathy Milbourn, an EPA spokeswoman. She adds
that the issue was "not driven by the election – it’s
something that is still under internal review and when that review
is complete, it will be out for public comment."