Although drainage flows to Kesterson were halted in 1985 following intense media exposure of the problem, selenium-contaminated farm drainage continues to flow to many wildlife refuges in more than a dozen western states, and food chain levels of selenium in those refuges reveal a continuing threat to bird populations. -- Lloyd Carter, Fresno Bee, July 5, 2007
Prominent people in the public affairs of Merced County, home of the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge selenium disaster, think you need a grant to do "outreach and education." The grant, goes the logic of its recipients, legitimizes the source of the information.
Fortunately for what's left of the Valley's natural resources, not all people wait for the grants and the blessings of the politicians to do their "outreach and education."
At a recent festival on the Merced River-side ranch of a county planning commissioner, a member of the board of the East Merced Resource Conservation District, described a lecture by author Lloyd Carter on the rivers of the San Joaquin Valley as a negative "rant."
Carter is among those who rose to the emergency of Kesterson, sacrificing his career in journalism to do the honest stories that had to be done. He didn't wait for a grant, a politician's or a publisher's blessing. He reported the truth, based on the facts, and still does.
Lloyd Carter, like Felix Smith, Lydia Miller and a few others, have done the work, do the work and will continue to do the work -- without the grant, the political or editorial kisses.
The editors, publishers, federal and state resource agencies and western agribusiness hope that we will forget. Carter, Smith, Miller and a few others won't let them lead us into amnesia.
LLOYD CARTER: Selenium poisoning is still a threat today
It has been nearly a quarter of a century since federal scientists discovered that selenium in Western San Joaquin Valley farm drainwater was triggering massive embryo deformities in ducks and shorebirds and killing all the edible fish at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge.
The fish die-off and deformities or embryo deaths in more than half the Kesterson nests were caused by selenium that had been leached from the western Valley soils by irrigation practices and then dissolved in subsurface drainwater funneled to the "refuge." Scientists would rediscover that selenium, while a micro nutrient, is the most toxic of all biologically essential elements in mammals.
Officials of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which built the federal irrigation facilities on the west side, and political appointees at the parent Department of Interior initially claimed the Kesterson selenium poisoning was an isolated problem.
But as investigations spread to other national wildlife refuges, selenium contamination was confirmed in the southern San Joaquin Valley (Tulare basin), Salton Sea, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona and Kansas.
Now 25 years later, with hundreds of millions of dollars on studies and research spent, the Department of Interior still has no selenium safety standards for wildlife, although a committee was appointed in 1989 to adopt such standards. Yet the evidence continues to grow that selenium poisoning, caused by farming, mining, coal burning, oil refining and other industrial activities, is occurring all over America.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey Web site or other Internet scientific sources:
Six horses and between 200 and 300 sheep died from grazing on selenium-laced plants near phosphate mines in Idaho between 1996 and 2003. Phosphate mining of shale soils to make fertilizers generates large amounts of selenium-laced mining wastes, which contaminate waterways and land.
Hay from western states high in selenium is suspected of causing selenium poisoning in horses in Missouri, according to University of Missouri veterinarians.
Fish and ducks in San Francisco Bay have elevated selenium levels.
Cutthroat trout are disappearing from streams along the Idaho-Wyoming border because of selenium contamination from phosphate mining.
Shellfish and birds in the Great Lakes region have elevated selenium levels.
Although drainage flows to Kesterson were halted in 1985 following intense media exposure of the problem, selenium-contaminated farm drainage continues to flow to many wildlife refuges in more than a dozen western states, and food chain levels of selenium in those refuges reveal a continuing threat to bird populations.
Dennis Lemly, of the U.S. Forest Service, who is considered a premier expert in America on selenium poisoning of wildlife, has described the disappearance of fish in southeast Idaho as "an insidious ticking time bomb."
Seventeen of 26 closed phosphate mines in Idaho have been designated Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA officials say not a single closed phosphate mine has ever been cleaned up. The current Secretary of Interior, Dirk Kempthorne, formerly served as a public relations spokesman for one of those phosphate mining companies.
Although Reclamation officials claimed they were surprised at Kesterson, it is only because they did not do their homework. Selenium poisoning of livestock and forage foods had been known for decades in the Dakotas and the southwest. High levels of selenium were confirmed in the Coast Range -- parent soil material of the western San Joaquin Valley -- in 1939.
Time magazine complained in a 1933 article that the U.S. Department of Agriculture was "inclined to silence" about selenium poisoning of cattle fed wheat, corn and alfalfa grown on high selenium soils in the American Southwest dating back to the 19th century.
The late David Love, "grand old man of Rocky Mountain geology," warned in a famous 1949 memorandum, which he later claimed was suppressed by the Department of Agriculture, that farming and irrigating high selenium soils in the American West would create an environmental disaster.
And closer to home the Westlands Water District, which once funneled its selenium-laced waste waters to Kesterson, now faces a drainage disposal problem that may cost in excess of $2 billion. Surrealistically, Interior officials are suggesting the construction of more Kesterson-like evaporation ponds as a "solution" to the farm drainage problem. Federal irrigation districts north of Westlands now drain their selenium-laced waste waters into the polluted lower San Joaquin River and want to continue doing so.
In 2007, with the Kesterson debacle a memory, the federal government is still "inclined to silence" about the extent and seriousness of the selenium problem. You don't hear politicians giving speeches about the selenium threat.
Federal scientists tell me selenium impacts on bird reproductivity are still occurring here in the Valley and elsewhere in America where farming and mining on high selenium soils is slowly but surely contributing to the steady decline of bird and fish populations.
Lloyd Carter, a Fresno lawyer, is director of the California Water Impact Network.