EPA Weakens Water Quality Standard for Harmful Selenium

For Immediate Release

EPA Weakens Water Quality Standard for Harmful Selenium

Gift to Industry Threatens Endangered Animals, Migratory Birds, Human Health

WASHINGTON - The Environmental Protection Agency finalized nationwide water-quality criteria for selenium today that are substantially weaker than proposed standards issued nearly six years ago. The EPA ignored the recommendations and concerns of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service regarding what levels of selenium pollution would be harmful to endangered species. Although selenium is beneficial to human health in very small doses, this metal becomes toxic as it accumulates in larger and larger amounts through the food chain. Selenium pollution, which causes grotesque spinal deformities in fish, is a common byproduct of mountaintop-removal coal mining, coal-fired power plants and many industrial processes.

“These selenium standards are a step backward for water quality and little more than a green light for industry to keep polluting our rivers and streams,” said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Endangered freshwater fish, amphibians and mussels are some of the fastest-declining species in the United States — in large part because toxic pollutants like selenium continue to be poorly regulated by the EPA.”

In 2010 the EPA recommended water-column criterion of 2.6 micrograms of selenium per liter in flowing waters and 1.3 micrograms per liter in impounded waters, but in 2016 the agency adopted water-column criterion of 3.1 micrograms per liter in flowing waters and 1.5 micrograms per liter in impounded waters. 

Despite expert wildlife agencies’ comments that the EPA is relying on out-of-date methodologies, developed in the 1980s, to assess harm to freshwater ecosystems, the agency continues to base its analysis almost entirely on this approach, which does not include the precautionary approach of the Endangered Species Act. The wildlife agencies also expressed their concerns that the EPA was not considering species higher up the food chain, like migratory birds, that feed on fish and other freshwater animals contaminated by selenium.

“The EPA is basing its analysis for selenium on assessment guidelines from 1985 — the year the 3½-inch floppy disk became popular,” said Hartl. “The EPA needs to start protecting water quality and protecting the most sensitive endangered species by listening to the experts and 21st century science.”

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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

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