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Why the Nation's Biggest Environmental Distaster May Be About to Get Worse

Scientists fear that the TVA's plan for cleaning up its toxic sludge spill in Tennessee may do more harm than good.

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EPA Business

But EPA standards are at the heart of the problem, according to Lemly. The EPA originally published recommended water-contamination standards for selenium in September 1987, but the agency never codified them. In December 2004, the EPA proposed revising the agency's recommended criteria to make them less strict. Those proposed revisions were "based on a review of new data on the toxicity of selenium to aquatic life," said Tulis of the EPA.

But Lemly and at least three current or former government scientists have publicly said that the EPA's "review of new data" was anything but solid. In fact, Lemly has accused EPA regulators of grossly misusing one of his studies to justify the change in the proposed selenium standards, which is favorable to selenium-polluting industries but does nothing to protect fish, wildlife and, ultimately, human health. "The EPA's proposed standards are grossly underprotective," he said.

"The EPA has fallen down on selenium," said Brian Paddock, a water-quality consultant who represents the Tennessee chapter of the Sierra Club. "But the Kingston spill means it is finally going to get its day. The EPA will be under pressure to do something."

Hard EPA regulations seem anything but imminent. Tulis said the agency expects to make available a revised draft of selenium standards this summer. Experts say they are hopeful that the revised standards will be more protective than current ones.

Kelly Hearn is a correspondent to National Geographic News and The Christian Science Monitor. His work has been funded by The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and The North American Congress on Latin America. A former UPI reporter, he has published in The Nation, Grist, High Country News, The Washington Times and World Politics Watch. He is a frequent contributor to Alternet.

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