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Not since 1963 has so much beach surrounded the Great Salt Lake. But this is not your typical inviting seashore, especially when windstorms whip up plumes of dry sediments laced with toxins that have flowed into the lake since white settlers arrived in Utah.
Earlier this year, state environmental officials agreed on a plan to clean up mining-related groundwater polluted by a century of Kennecott Utah Copper mining in Bingham Canyon. An early proposal from the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District to dump the briny contaminants into the Jordan River was abandoned when environmentalists, duck-hunting groups, labor organizations and local officials complained.
But as the agreement was being negotiated, Department of Environmental Quality director Dianne Nielson started thinking about the sulfates and selenium that have historically flowed to the Great Salt Lake from mine erosion. She directed the air quality division to begin monitoring what the wind blew off the 60,000 to 70,000 acres of beach now exposed, the largest high-and-dry expanse since 1963.
"What we're mostly looking for are metals," said Bryce Bird, who directs the state's air monitoring efforts.
Three air monitors have been set up at the entrance to Antelope Island near Syracuse, near Farmington Bay and just east of the Salt Lake marina. The monitors haven't collected anything yet - the weather has been too wet - but the Division of Water Quality has sent samples of the sediments and Great Salt Lake water to federal labs for testing, said DWQ environmental scientist Theron Miller.
The results aren't expected for at least a month, Miller said Monday.
Of greatest concern are selenium and mercury. Selenium can be toxic to waterfowl and could threaten the ecology of the lake, an international flyway for migratory birds. A year ago, field tests at one of the duck clubs whose members hunt at the lake found selenium to be at 4.5 parts per billion, only slightly below the federal limit of 4.6.
According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, mercury in the air isn't as much of a concern as when it's in water, where biological processes turn it into a deadly toxin that builds up in the bloodstream of fish and animals that eat fish.
Bird said that it's unknown what airborne concentrations might pose hazards. In general, he said, Utah air quality officials are more concerned with the particulates that carry the metals, especially fine particulates called PM10 or PM2.5.
Kathy Van Dame, policy coordinator for the Wasatch Clean Air Coalition, commended DAQ for setting up the Great Salt Lake monitoring to find out what attaches to the airborne PM2.5 particles, which are small enough to be carried in the bloodstream.
"There continues to be some discussion how much the chemicals absorbed into the particles have to do with the toxicity itself," she said.
The EPA on Monday released results of five years of study on particulate pollution, reporting that even short-term exposure to particulates is associated with illness and premature death independent of other atmospheric pollution. The EPA studies found that extended PM2.5 exposure can lead to chronic disease and a shortened life span, and that presence of gaseous and chemical components such as metals appear to contribute to its toxicity.
DAQ last month set up a program allowing Utahns to receive e-mail notices when windstorms are expected to kick up dust. But even if people take precautions on windy days such as limiting outdoor exercise, the fine particles can move indoors, Van Dame said. "Doing something about it would be a very difficult thing," she said. "We can't stop the wind."