- Associated Press - Monday, May 25, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A $74 million project to clean up ground water contaminated by mining has environmentalists worried that the pollutants could end up hurting birds on the Great Salt Lake.

Water regulators are preparing to take the final steps in a decade-long project to clean up underground plumes of water contaminated by 100 years’ worth of minerals and heavy metals dumped by Kennecott miners, the Salt Lake Tribune reported this week (https://bit.ly/1dhftan).

The water will be cleansed in two reverse osmosis plants, with the clean water going into the culinary water supply and the removed minerals going into wastewater that will be pumped into the Great Salt Lake.

The 1.5 million gallons of water a day isn’t much for Utah’s inland sea and Environmental Protection Agency regulators decided in March the discharges won’t cause significant impacts.

But with water levels are at historic lows, some say that the wastewater could combine with minerals already in the lake and hurt the birds.

One mineral, called selenium, is particularly concerning. Though naturally occurring in trace amounts, at higher levels it can cause deformities in the embryos of migratory aquatic birds that depend on the lake. The birds absorb selenium when they eat brine shrimp, brine flies and other tiny organisms that attract them to the lake.

“Yes, it’s a small amount, but it’s added to a larger amount,” said Kim Shelley, a state water engineer. “It accumulates and it becomes a problem. It’s death by a thousand cuts.”

But officials say the project has to be done. The contaminated underground water is slowly moving toward the Jordan River, which empties into the Great Salt Lake.

“We want to make sure we aren’t causing unintended consequences,” said Shazelle Terry, who is the water-quality manager for the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy district. Sill, “that plume was making its way to the Jordan River anyway. All we are doing is speeding up a natural process.”

In preparation for the project, researchers spent years studying selenium concentrations in birds’ eggs to determine how much could be dangerous.

“The thing with birds is they are exquisitely sensitive to it. The dose makes the poison,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Chris Cline. “It doesn’t take a lot (of selenium) to lead to problems.”

They collected eggs from birds that spend the winter at the lake, including California gulls, stilts and avocets, as well as birds that nest there, including the common goldeye, the eared grebe and the mallard.

After four years, the scientists found that a level of 12.5 parts per million could cause damage to eggshells.

As the wastewater starts going into the lake, scientists will keep gathering eggs from nesting sites to make sure the levels stay in the safe zone. If they get too high, the state could limit the wastewater amounts.

Still, environmentalists worry that the standard leaves too much wiggle room.

“It is possibly worse to dispose of concentrated toxins … into a precarious ecosystem - which is precisely what you are doing here,” Salt Lake City environmental consultant Ivan Weber wrote to the EPA.

The Jordan Valley water conservancy board is expected to take up the issue at its meeting on June 3.

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, https://www.sltrib.com


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