New Federal Water Quality Guidance on Selenium

By Eliza Laubach

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released final changes to a water quality criterion for selenium in July. The criterion guides state and tribal agency selenium rules and replaces a previous, more stringent, criterion.

Selenium, an essential nutrient for humans in small amounts, is toxic to fish even in small amounts. It accumulates in fish and aquatic organisms that live in contaminated waters and can cause deformations or death. It also can harm birds that eat organisms from contaminated waters. This naturally occurring element enters the water through coal mining, coal-fired power plants, irrigated agriculture and natural weathering processes.

Environmental groups criticize the EPA changes, which allow industries to discharge more selenium. The Sierra Club said in a press release that the missed chance to create a strong national standard is disappointing, as it “placed responsibility in the hands of state regulators who have already established that they will not miss an opportunity to aid their polluter friends in the mining industry.”


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