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It is an environmental whodunit of the first order. There are corpses, tens of thousands of them, strewn all over the western landscape, in and out of water. Sleuthing scientists have pieced together threads of incriminating evidence, which have led to powerful corporate, or large family, farms. The Justice Department has been asked to file charges against these powerful agricultural interests for violating international treaties, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation's environmental crimes unit entered the case at one point for law enforcement officers of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
Here the mystery ends and a tragic trail of bureaucratic shuffling, intimidation, and cover-up starts. Under pressure from inside and out, officials at Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Geologic Survey, and the Bureau of Reclamation--and their parent agency, the Department of the Interior (DOI)--have failed to address the deadly scenes that are being played out across the West. Here perhaps millions of acres of federally irrigated farmlands bleed a natural poison, selenium, that turns marshes, streams, and lakes into killing fields, where thousands of migratory birds and other wildlife have perished.
The carnage of contamination that has been going on for decades is little known outside the West. But most of the intrigue and highly politicized bureaucratic manipulation has taken place over the past ten years, since selenium's impact on wildlife was discovered at an unremarkable patchwork of manmade evaporation ponds in California's heartland, a place called Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge. At almost all of the fifty or so sites in the West where what has come to be known as the "Kesterson effect" has been confirmed or suspected, corporate and family farms have been treated deferentially.
The Expanding Selenium Threat
The map shows the progress of the U.S. Interior's continuing investigation of selenium contamination throughout the west.
* Sites where dead and deformed waterfowl have been found:
1. Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), CA
2. Tulare basin, CA
3. Stillwater Waterfowl Management Area (WMA), NV
4. Kendrick Reclamation Project, WY
5. Ouray NWR (Middle Green River basin), UT
6. Benton Lake NWR (Sun River Project), MT
* Sites where toxicity thresholds exceeded, but death and deformity not yet confirmed:
7. Deer Flat NWR (American Falls Reservoir), ID
8. Malheur NWR, OR
9. Salton Sea, CA
10. Riverton Reclamation Project, WY
11. Gunnison River-Grand Valley Project, CO
12. Middle Arkansas River basin, CO-KS
* Sites where preliminary studies have been completed but no toxic effects confirmed:
13. Bowdoin NWR (Milk River Project), MT
14. Belle Fourche Reclamation Project, SD
15. Angostura Reclamation Unit, SD
16. Sacramento NWR complex, CA
17. Lower Colorado River Valley, AZ
18. Bosque del Apache NWR (Middle Rio Grande), NM
19. Laguna Atascosa NWR (Lower Rio Grande Valley), …