Cleanup plan castigated

The United States Bureau of Reclamation's plan to clean up the notorious Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge has raised the ire of environmentalists and some state and federal agencies. Contaminated by agricultural runoff laced with dangerously high levels of selenium, the refuge in California's Central Valley has been closed to all farm drainage since June. The selenium, however, remains immobilized in sediments beneath the Kesterson ponds.

The bureau's approach is to flood the ponds with fresh water, a move that is likely to confine the selenium to the sludge at the bottom, experts agree. If, over time, selenium levels in fish and wildlife do not drop, the bureau will then resort to more expensive options, says John Deason, irrigation drainage coordinator with the US Department of Interior.

By experimenting with cleanup options at Kesterson, ``we hope it will enable us to solve and mitigate similar problems that might be found elsewhere in the West,'' he adds. But many environmental groups have characterized the bureau's plan as ``absurd.''

``They're using fresh water to put a toxic-chemical problem on hold - and they're losing a wetland in the process,'' says Zach Willey of the Environmental Defense Fund. ``It's hard to see the benefit in this, except to buy time.''

State officials, too, say they are concerned the plan will not effectively protect wildlife at the refuge, which is a haven for several threatened species. The California Water Resources Control Board, which ordered a cleanup in 1985, will hold public hearings on the bureau's plan Monday and Tuesday in Sacramento. It is expected to reach a decision by March.

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