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Posted: 8:13 PM- The lowly, little brine shrimp finds itself at center stage in one of the year's biggest environmental debates.

The state Division of Water Quality is updating clean-water rules, as it does every three years, and it's suggesting a number of changes that will affect the contaminant levels wildlife are exposed to in the Great Salt Lake. While some say the changes merely balance the lake's many uses, others contend the lake might wind up less protected than before.

Selenium has been a big focus. A mineral essential for nutrition in small amounts, it can, in high concentrations built up in the food chain, weaken bird eggs, reduce fertility and cause deformities.

Critics say the state's proposal, now up for public comment, allows too much selenium in Gilbert Bay, the southwestern quadrant of the Great Salt Lake.

Don Leonard, director of the Utah Artemia Association, wants the state to limit selenium in brine shrimp, too. His association's 20 member companies pulled about 1.2 million pounds of brine shrimp eggs from the Great Salt Lake last season that are expected to fetch around $25 million as fish and seafood feed that is sold worldwide.

"We in the industry are always on the watch to protect the brine shrimp resource from contaminants," he said. "We do not want the amount of selenium in our product to make it unmarketable to our foreign customers."

While Leonard's group pushes to include brine-shrimp in selenium monitoring, Kennecott Utah Copper wants part of the selenium proposal cut.

The "tiered-monitoring" included in the updated regulations relies on bird eggs to gauge the lake's health. Only so much selenium in a certain sampling of eggs will be permitted. Higher concentrations would mean added limits on selenium discharges. Even more selenium would bring even tighter limits.

Although selenium would have to multiply before curbs like these are triggered, it's possible tougher curbs might complicate a water cleanup program of the state, Kennecott and the Jordan Valley water district that serves more than 1 million Utahns. The cleanup allows excess selenium to go into Gilbert Bay.

Kennecott, whose Bingham Canyon mine generated $1.6 billion in profits last year, was part of an advisory panel that spent $2.6 million over the past 4 years studying Great Salt Lake selenium. The mining company also has a representative on the state board responsible for updating water-quality regulations.

"It's important to balance the need to protect wildlife with the need to use the lake for societal needs," said Kennecott's Kelly Payne, who served on the advisory committee.

"It's important to Kennecott that [the selenium standard is] set to a scientifically defensible level."

The pending revisions also change regulations on Great Salt Lake wetlands, pollution zones in the lake and water-quality issues that have a statewide impact.

Joro Walker, representing the conservation group Friends of the Great Salt Lake, said duck hunters, bird-watchers and environmental advocates are disappointed because the proposal appears to reduce protections for the lake ecology, including the wetlands that are vital to between 9 and 12 million birds that alight at the Great Salt Lake during migration each year.

Several conservation groups will be pushing for more stringent selenium standards, she added.