The subject of selenium bioaccumulating up the food chain and into birds that frequent the Great Salt Lake has the attention of hunters and others who care about the mineral's potential impact on the lake's fragile ecosystem.

The 16-member Great Salt Lake Selenium Steering Committee gave stakeholders their chance Tuesday night at the Utah Department of Environmental Quality offices to sound off as state regulators work toward an unprecedented numeric selenium water quality standard for the lake.

People wanted to know what mitigation efforts would take place if the new selenium limit was exceeded and who would pay to step up monitoring efforts to more closely identify "trigger points" of contamination. Friends of Great Salt Lake director Lynn de Freitas asked if answers to those questions should be found before establishing a standard.

"There's not an alarm going off that says we've got a dramatic impairment in the lake right now," said Utah Division of Water Quality director Walt Baker. "I don't think it needs to stop the establishment of a standard."

Hunters and others at the meeting urged the committee to err on the side of caution in setting a stringent selenium limit specific to the lake, noting there are already consumption warnings for certain bird species because of mercury contamination in some areas of Utah. Some want to make sure industry needs aren't somehow put before the need to protect the lake.

Selenium is a naturally occurring mineral found in the Great Salt Lake, but researchers have been finding higher than normal levels of the substance in the livers of shorebirds, which number between two million and five million on the lake throughout the year. Scientists want more time and funding to study selenium's effects on the lake's ecosystem. One theory is that birds may actually be using selenium to detoxify high amounts of mercury also found in their bodies.

It's also thought that higher doses of selenium may lead to reproductive failures and birth defects in birds, including mallard ducks, considered more sensitive to selenium than other aquatic birds feeding on the lake. The science of studying selenium's impact on birds, however, is taking a conservative approach by focusing on less sensitive bird species.

Kennecott Utah Copper has conducted its own research into selenium pollution since the late 1990s. Lately the mining giant has kicked in its own cash to added efforts focusing on selenium. Those efforts include looking at Kennecott's current releases of the mineral into the lake's ecosystem and what its role might be in light of a new selenium standard for the lake.

"It may change over time," Baker said about the standard possibly becoming more and more stringent as future studies reveal more about selenium's impact. "We'll have to see."

Over the past four years various funding sources have provided $2.3 million to study the selenium issue. The Division of Water Quality is expected to have a recommendation ready later this year for the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has a selenium standard for freshwater but not for saltwater environments. Two more public meetings on the subject are set for August.


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com