Two-Headed Trout and a Wrong-Headed EPA Proposal

As the proposal stands, EPA may be depriving citizens of a critical tool for protecting their beloved waterways.
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Two years ago, pollution from mining in Idaho was so severe that trout from the polluted streams were spawning mutated trout, including two-headed trout. Idaho's significant water pollution problems is what compelled The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi to dress up like a fish with two heads, call up Erin Brockovich, and conduct an exposé of toxic selenium pollution coming from one company's mine sites. While the segment was downright hilarious, the problem isn't.

Selenium is a naturally-occurring chemical element that provides an essential dietary nutrient in small doses, but is highly toxic in larger doses. The bit ends with comedian Aasif Mandvi drinking the water and laying his two heads down to sleep, cursing the mining company.

That may be comedy, but excessive intake of selenium can be serious, resulting in a host of neurological effects, including reproductive failure, deformation both at birth and in adults. Selenium also bioaccumulates, meaning that it can be ingested by small aquatic animals and then passed along up the food chain to fish and eventually humans.

Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed significant changes to the way that EPA and the states would measure whether selenium pollution is harming fish and other aquatic life in our nation's waterways. EPA's proposal would support a move away from the straightforward and effective method of testing selenium through direct water sampling, toward a more complex, burdensome and cost-prohibitive method of sampling fish tissue. It would also omit protections against short-term ("acute") spikes in selenium. This proposal could have a significant impact on the ability of communities to protect the health of their cherished waterways.

This proposal is particularly significant for communities in southern Appalachia, where the destructive practice of mountaintop removal mining (MTR) is threatening the health of headwater streams and the communities around them. To date, MTR operations have buried an estimated 2,400 miles of Appalachian streams -- more than the entire length of the Mississippi River. Studies have found elevated levels of highly toxic selenium in rivers downstream from MTR sites.

Because of lax water quality enforcement by state and federal agencies, groups like the Alliance for Appalachia, through the Appalachian Citizens Enforcement (ACE) project, have been taking on the challenge of conducting their own water quality monitoring. Their findings show that levels of selenium are shockingly high in MTR-impacted waterways.

The EPA's proposal also raises serious concerns for numerous other waters and communities across the country. In southeast Idaho, selenium pollution from phosphate mining has been linked with livestock and wildlife deaths as well as severe depletion of native trout populations. In the southern Central Valley of California, water pollution by selenium that leaches from irrigated farmland in agricultural runoff is a perennial problem.

In the early 80s, selenium pollution led to a major die-off of birds, fish, and other life forms in the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge into which these polluted irrigation waters drained. And selenium is a big problem in many areas across the country where coal storage piles and coal ash dumps are sources of selenium pollution.

Citizen monitoring of water quality has been an essential tool in holding polluters accountable for discharges of selenium and other toxic elements. Affected citizens have been successful at taking industry polluters to task for violations of the Clean Water Act in part because of the information gathered through citizen monitoring and enforcement actions. Industry has responded by urging the states and EPA to weaken legal water quality standards. Unfortunately, EPA's proposal may give them what they want.

EPA should revise its proposal to encourage and enable ordinary citizens to participate in the monitoring and enforcement process, without the need for costly laboratory facilities and sampling protocols that are beyond the reach of average members of the public. As the proposal stands, EPA may be depriving citizens of a critical tool for protecting their beloved waterways.

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