Scientists Criticize Proposed EPA Change on Selenium

Scientists are criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency over its plan to change the limits for selenium pollution. The scientist who wrote the study used as the basis of the new rules says the EPA has twisted his findings to allow more pollution than is safe.

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Some top scientists are accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of twisting the facts and misrepresenting critical research. On its face, the dispute is over controlling selenium pollution. The deeper issue is whether the EPA is corrupting science in favor of industry. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Shogren.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN reporting:

Selenium occurs naturally in the environment, but coal mining, irrigation and many common industrial practices release concentrated amounts of it into waterways. Just a small amount can poison wildlife. Government biologists have been urging the EPA for years to set stricter limits, but they complain that the new standard actually would allow more selenium pollution. Joe Skorupa is a veteran selenium expert at the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

Mr. JOE SKORUPA (US Fish & Wildlife Service): Well, there's no question that they've misinterpreted the key study that they based their number on. And this has been confirmed by the author of the study itself.

SHOGREN: That study was written by Forest Service biologist Dennis Lemly. He wanted to speak to NPR about his work, but the Forest Service wouldn't let him. NPR did receive a copy of a letter Lemly wrote to the EPA saying there were, quote, "fatal flaws" in its interpretation of his work. But the agency has refused to change its position.

The details of the scientific analysis are complex and pretty technical, but there was at least one area of consensus. Both the EPA and scientists, including Lemly, agree that the old standard for measuring selenium contamination needs to change. Instead of basing it on the concentration of the chemical in water, the new standard should measure selenium concentrations in the flesh of fish. The EPA then proposed a new selenium limit at 7.9 parts per million, and that's where the disagreement arose.

Mr. SKORUPA: It's Lemly's study that they're using to justify this number. The problem that I and other scientists have is that if you're going to use that number, you can't use the Lemly study to justify it.

SHOGREN: The EPA identifies 7.9 parts per million as the level that protects 80 percent of fish from what it calls `chronic effects.' EPA's Denise Keehner lists some of them.

Ms. DENISE KEEHNER (Environmental Protection Agency): The impacts of selenium on the development of young fish: skeletal abnormalities and deformities, reproductive kinds of impacts, impacts on growth.

SHOGREN: That list does not include death. The problem is at that level in the Lemly study, under winter conditions about half the fish died. In other words, the agency's contention that 80 percent of fish would be protected doesn't match up with Lemly's findings. At first the scientists thought EPA merely misinterpreted the study. Lemly, Skorupa and other federal biologists sent the EPA a paper documenting its mistakes, but that was a year ago, and the agency refused to change its position. Steven Hamilton recently retired after 20 years of studying fish and selenium for the US Geological Survey.

Mr. STEVEN HAMILTON (Retired US Geological Survey Scientist): It's hard to understand why EPA has, so to speak, dug their heels in at the 7.9 number and don't seem to want to budge from it, no matter what kind of evidence and what kind of letters and what kind of literature is pointed to to try to get them to reconsider perhaps a lower number.

SHOGREN: Ed Inhoffe(ph) is another retired USGS scientist. He managed the government's response to a selenium poisoning 20 years ago in California that grossly deformed birds. That spurred adoption of the current standard. He's also upset about the way the agency used Lemly's findings.

Mr. ED INHOFFE (Retired US Geological Survey Scientist): I understand good science, and I understand good procedure. There's been a corruption of his answer and a misuse of it. But I'm weighed in because I see some bad science, and I don't like it.

SHOGREN: He worries this could become a pattern.

Mr. INHOFFE: I don't like the process because I think it's biased toward those who emit the pollutant. And I don't like the result because I think it has screened out data and has closed out the comments of some very good scientists who really know selenium almost better than anyone alive.

SHOGREN: Denise Keehner, the biologist who heads the EPA's Office of Water Quality Standards, defends the agency's position.

Ms. KEEHNER: EPA scientists are exceptional scientists. They care about environmental protection. They are as concerned as any other scientist in the federal government about doing the right thing.

SHOGREN: The new standard could benefit some of the biggest producers of selenium pollution. For instance, in Appalachia, coal-mining companies release selenium by demolishing the tops of mountains and dumping leftover rock and dirty into valleys. Under the current standard many operations are in violation of the law. Under the new standard the industry would get a clean bill of health and avoid costly cleanups. That exasperates Dan Ramsey, one of the Fish & Wildlife scientists who sampled the fish. He says it's just the latest environmental rollback to help the industry.

Mr. DAN RAMSEY (US Fish & Wildlife Service): Jacking up or making the criteria for selenium higher is simpler than trying to fix the problem. That's the kind of reaction you get generally--is to change a standard rather than to address the problem.

SHOGREN: Keehner doesn't deny that some polluters would get to keep fouling waters under the new rule, but she says that misses the point.

Ms. KEEHNER: It's what's in the fish that counts, and I think the concern should be whether concentrations in the water are really getting into the fish and having the impacts on the fish. That's the species that we're trying to protect.

SHOGREN: Keehner said the agency will consider the scientists' complaints when it makes its final decision on the new selenium rule. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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