As a dietary supplement for humans, selenium is considered a valuable antioxidant. But higher levels of the naturally occurring mineral found in the Great Salt Lake ecosystem have led to a four-year, $2.3 million study, with calls for more research and funding as some seek a selenium standard for the lake.

At the International Conference on Salt Lake Research on Thursday, Utah Division of Water Quality director Walt Baker told an audience a numeric standard may be agreed upon by the state's Water Quality Board by September. Board members would then make a recommendation to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has a selenium standard for freshwater but not for saltwater environments.

"There is nothing alarming that has thus far come out of the studies," Baker said in an interview Thursday.

He said it hasn't become a human health issue but that the concern is as selenium bioaccumulates up the food chain it may become toxic by the time it reaches the lake's abundant bird population.

The public is invited to a meeting of the Great Salt Lake Selenium Steering Committee Tuesday at 6 p.m. in room 101 at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, 168 N. 1950 West, Salt Lake City. The committee, which includes industry, government and environmental groups, will give a presentation before coming up with its own recommendation later this month.

By June 20 the committee is scheduled to make its recommendation to the Water Quality Board, which will then approach the EPA with its site-specific water quality standard for the lake.

"This is such a complex issue, but an important precedent is being made right now," advocacy group Friends of Great Salt Lake states on its Web site, www.fogsl.org. "We must show our support in the process."

Higher-than-normal levels of selenium and mercury have been found in the livers of shorebirds around the Great Salt Lake. A "dream team" of scientists targeting selenium can't be sure yet what the long-term ecological impacts could be and members are focusing their efforts for now on studying bird eggs and sensitive reproductive issues. In the future studies may turn to whether any deformities in birds can be linked to the mineral in the Great Salt Lake.

Selenium is found naturally in the environment, specifically water, which industry polluted in some places near the lake decades ago and has since been trying to clean up.

Enter Kennecott Utah Copper, which is ultimately responsible for two plumes of contaminated groundwater on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. Cleanup was supposed to include using a reverse osmosis method of purifying water from one of the plumes.

The mere act of purifying, however, has been found to actually concentrate selenium in the so-called "reject" water before it is discharged. The reject water was proposed to be released into the Jordan River and nobody balked until water regulators asked in 2004 to rescind a permit request allowing the water to be pumped into the river, which flows north through the valley into the Great Salt Lake. That same year the selenium steering committee was formed.

Baker pointed out Thursday that Kennecott has contributed $130,000 toward funding selenium studies, with other monies coming from the DEQ, Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, the EPA and the North Davis Sewer District. But Kennecott's involvement in selenium issues goes back to the late 1990s.

"It's been on our radar screen for a long time," said Kennecott's Kelly Payne. "We don't want to poison the lake — we don't want to hurt the lake." "We'll have to live with whatever they say," Payne said about water quality regulators.

The EPA on its Web site lists Utah as the leader among five states that from 1987 to 1993 had the highest releases of selenium in total pounds into water and land combined. Major industries responsible included those involved in copper smelting and refining, metal coatings and petroleum refining, according to the EPA. Payne said it's important to put the issue in proper context, meaning the figures as they relate to Kennecott refer to normal mining activities of moving waste rock, which includes selenium and constitutes a "release."

At high enough doses in drinking water, the EPA states selenium can have a variety of serious immediate and long-term health impacts. For more information visit the Web site, www.epa.gov/OGWDW/contaminants/dw_contamfs/selenium.html.


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com