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SALT LAKE CITY -- State regulators Wednesday gave a tentative "thumbs up" for disposal of contaminated water into the Great Salt Lake. A pipeline to get it there is already under construction.
It's the latest twist in a controversy that's gone on for a quarter-century: What to do about groundwater under the Salt Lake Valley contaminated by a century of mining activity.
A new proposed solution is about to be presented for public comment.
The basic idea is to pump the bad water out of wells, run it through a treatment plant and make good drinking water for cities.
But there's a byproduct no one wants.
The plan is to discharge it into the lake at a site by Saltair, The Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District is already building a treatment plant. It will be supplied by wells drilled into one of two plumes of contaminated underground water. The aquifers are tainted by runoff from 100 years of mining at Bingham Canyon.
When the new plant is complete, it will use reverse osmosis to clean the well water.
Richard Bay. general manager of the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, said, "It will produce over 4,000 acre feet per year for the public of purified water."
But about a fourth of the water going through the plant will emerge as a waste product with high concentrations of a naturally-occurring mineral called selenium.
It's suspected of causing harm to waterfowl, including hatching problems and grotesque birth defects. State regulators have been studying whether it's safe to put it in the Great Salt Lake.
"It took us four years and $2.2 million to answer this question," said Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality. "Our deliberate answer is that there will be not a harmful effect as a result of this discharge to the Great Salt Lake."
Five years ago, the original plan was to discharge it into the Jordan River, but a public outcry caused a dramatic change. Instead, a pipeline will bypass the river and go directly to the Great Salt Lake.
"The river right now is having difficulty with other pollutants, and putting it into the river would only add to that problem," Baker said. "It's better to put it into the Great Salt Lake."
The chemistry of the lake is different. It's actually less fresh than the wastewater. State regulators say studies show natural selenium entering the lake does not build up: It disappears as a gas into the air or gets buried under sediment.
"Yes, we believe it to be the case that the concentrations in the lake will not increase," Baker said.
The environmental group Friends of the Great Salt Lake chose not to comment Wednesday. They're waiting for a briefing from state officials.
Meanwhile, regulators plan to allow 60 days for public comment and three public meetings before the decision becomes final.