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EPA Proposes Using Better Science to Protect Aquatic Life

Release Date: 12/09/2004
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Cathy Milbourn 202-564-7824 / milbourn.cathy@epa.gov

(12/09/04) Today, EPA is requesting review from the scientific community on a better approach for protecting aquatic life in watersheds from the impacts of selenium. By establishing a level of selenium in fish tissue, instead of water, the Agency expects that states will be able to further protect fish in each watershed where selenium contamination is a concern.

EPA is proposing a fish-tissue based criterion because fish tissue samples provide a better indicator of the presence of selenium in a particular waterbody. Fish move throughout a waterbody and absorb into their tissue contaminants like selenium that may be present in the water. As a result, fish tissue more effectively reflects both the level and duration of contamination in the water over time.

The current water-column-based approach is more limited because it only provides information about the presence of contamination at the specific place and time where the sample is taken. The draft approach represents the Agency’s consideration of peer review comments and coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The draft aquatic life criterion will not be finalized until EPA has received and considered additional broad scientific review.

This draft approach only applies to aquatic life and does not apply to wildlife, such as birds that consume fish. The Agency is currently working with a team of scientists, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to develop a national methodology for developing criteria that protect wildlife as well as aquatic life.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element that is essential to life, but it can be toxic in excess and can reduce survival of young fish. Selenium can either be found naturally or in releases from certain agricultural and industrial activities. There will be a 120-day review period for “The Draft Aquatic Life Water Quality Criteria for Selenium 2004" that will begin upon publication in the Federal Register. The document is available at: http://www.epa.gov/seleniumcriteria/ . General information about water quality criteria is available at: http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/criteria/ .