DOW Proposed Changes to Water Quality Standards for Selenium

Selenium can be a dangerous element, plain and simple.  It’s what scientists call a “bioaccumulative chemical of concern” (BCC).  This means that, after selenium has contaminated a waterway, and little fish with small amounts of selenium are eaten by bigger fish, the concentration of that selenium actually increases higher up the food chain.  So, as you might guess, that means that since humans are more or less the top of the food chain, we get the worst of it from these BCCs, like selenium.   But we wouldn’t eat fish that looked like this, anyways, right?

Yeah, that’s a two headed trout found in a stream with high levels of selenium.

Why is all this important?

Well, on February 5, 2013, instead of removing the existing acute limit, DOW proposed a significant change to the acute and chronic criterion.  DOW proposed a new limit of 258 micrograms per liter (µg/L) in-stream concentration for the acute criterion.   That is considerably higher than the current limit of 20 micrograms per liter (µg/L).  In fact, that’s over 12 times the current limit.  We’re extremely concerned about this proposed change.  Additionally, DOW proposed to change the existing chronic criterion of 5 micrograms per liter (µg/L) in-stream concentration limit to a new method that uses that same value as a threshold for additional fish tissue testing.  If that thresholve value is crossed, then additional fish tissue tests will be required, with a new limit of 8.6 micrograms per gram (µg/g) fish-tissue concentration.  If fish tissue concentration exceeds the limit, only then is it considered impaired.

This wasn’t altogether a surprise–after all, the proposed changes for the Triennial Review were published back on September 1, 2012, and those included the complete removal of the acute criterion for selenium.  That proposed change was along with a number of others that went through the required full 30-day public notice and commenting period.  Many groups, including KWA, were not pleased with that original proposal.

The recent email by the Division of Water was more of a shock because the proposal outlined was to change the acute criterion for selenium from 20 µg/L to 258 µg/L–over 12 times the current limit!!!  In addition, DOW has proposed changes to the chronic criterion, which they had not proposed to change, initially. This is all the more appalling because it represents a complete reversal from the original proposal, and therefore represents a significant change in regulations.    As a result, it must go through a full 30-day public notice and commenting period.

This proposed change follows a history of proposals to modify the selenium standards.  Back in 2004, EPA proposed draft criteria, found here.  This is actually what DOW has chosen to adopt.  The proposed criteria were concerning, though, and EPA backtracked, and subsequently released a new study on the toxicity of selenium to aquatic life in 2008, found here.  Meanwhile, EPA has not yet proposed new draft selenium criteria.  The interesting aspect of all this is that, as cited in the email sent out regarding this proposed changed, EPA actually objected to DOW’s initial proposal to remove the acute criterion for selenium, and suggested 3 alternatives, one of which was to adopt the EPA 2004 proposed selenium criteria–even though EPA has admitted that the 2004 criteria are questionable.

We have already begun collaborating with several partner groups across the state and region, who have a public stake in this issue.  An Administrative Review committee meeting was held on February 11th, where legislators had planned to pass this change.  Fortunately, there was strong resistance from various environmental and public rights advocacy groups.  The committee put off the changes until the public were given a chance to comment.  On February 12th, a public notice email was sent out regarding the proposed change, and a public comment period was open until March 1, 2013.

We attended a couple meetings with DOW on the issue, and still had concerns.  We put together an additional blog on the issue afterwards.  Read it here!

We sent out an action alert, and had a take action page up–and many of you responded!  Thanks for taking time as citizens to voice your concerns about the proposed change!

Here’s a collection of links and information on the issue

Comment letters submitted to DOW:

Triennial Review comments to Legislative Sub Committee 2-11-13 FINAL True

Triennial Review comments to DOW 2-28-13

Selenium Handout

KY Selenium Handout

News articles/editorials:


Courier-Journal’s Jim Bruggers blog

Louisville Public Radio WFPL

KWA’s Blog