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Selenium standard ignores bevy of unanswered questions

by JERRY BENNETT, JOSH LETCHER and BRENT TESKE
| March 1, 2022 7:00 AM

We have listened intently for over a year as state regulators imposed a new, very stringent site-specific water quality standard for selenium in Lake Koocanusa, while reassuring those who live here that this unusual action is both scientifically justified and in our best interests.

As county commissioners, we want to believe both assurances, but after a great deal of study and analysis the reality is, neither is valid. It is important for all Montanans to understand that the flaws in the Department of Environmental Quality's (DEQ) work would negatively impact Montana.

Selenium is a natural, essential trace mineral in Montana and Canada that leaches from oil and is also disturbed through processes like mining and other activities such as irrigation. DEQ claims the Lake Koocanusa site-specific standard, which is far more stringent than the EPA’s guideline as well as standards in the rest of Montana, is necessary to protect fish and water quality.

We don't question the need to protect water quality. But we have an obligation to our constituents to raise questions when things don't pass the smell test. The fact is the process and data used in this case does not support DEQ's site-specific standard.

The rulemaking began in September 2020 and resulted in a final site specific-standard just three months later of 0.8 micrograms per litre. That such a standard was passed so quickly is extremely unusual given that it is a site-specific standard (of which there are very few in Montana) and one that is based on fish tissue, of which there are no others in Montana.

Even more unusual, the standard of 0.8 micrograms per litre is nearly two times more stringent than the federally recommended guideline of 1.5 micrograms per litre. And, most peculiar of all, the new standard is below natural background levels in some upstream waterways and in other waterways feeding into Lake Koocanusa.

Why the rush to set this standard at the tail end of the Bullock administration? We do not know what, exactly, makes Lake Koocanusa so different from other Montana lakes that it needs such a site-specific standard.

We don't know where, how, when or from what species fish tissue will be sampled to determine whether the standard is met. We don't know what impact the operation of the Libby Dam has on selenium concentrations

And we don't know why DEQ insists on a standard lower than the federal guideline, which is designed to protect the most sensitive fish, including white sturgeon. DEQ and others point the finger at mining operators in Canada, who are addressing upstream selenium, spending billions of dollars on science-based water treatment plants. But how — with a straight face — do we suggest they have an obligation to reduce selenium levels in Lake Koocanusa to a level below what naturally occurs upstream and in other tributaries to Lake Koocanusa?

We have also not received scientifically justifiable reasons for this site-specific standard. Our fish remain completely safe to eat as recently confirmed by Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks, and we see no credible fish tissue data exceeding EPA's selenium criterion.

Many of us also have grown increasingly concerned about how the DEQ has portrayed some of the findings regarding selenium, too often mischaracterizing them when it suits the agency's purpose. For example, citing a U.S. Geological Survey report, regulators and activists have repeatedly stated that the site-specific standard for selenium is necessary because levels in Lake Koocanusa are rising rapidly. News articles quote them using words like "sharp" or "alarming" increases. Yet when we look at the data, average selenium levels in the U.S.-side of Lake Koocanusa have remained stable, with very few samples ever exceeding the EPA criteria.

We've also heard Montana must set this low standard to protect fish downstream in Idaho. But the protective standard in Idaho is 3.1 micrograms per liter, more than three times DEQ's standard, twice that of the EPA standard and well above even the current level of selenium in the lake.

DEQ's site-specific standard risks the very real possibility that the lake will end up on EPA's list of impaired waters. We do not want one of our county's greatest assets on such a list, which will have serious, negative ramifications for both development and tourism.

At the end of the day, the standard is not in Lincoln County's or Montana's best interest, is not scientifically justified, and could have long-term negative impacts across Montana.

The authors are the county commissioners for Lincoln County.