A senior Interior Department official acknowledged yesterday that toxic contamination from federal water projects may be a widespread problem in the West, but denied that the department has stalled a major study of the situation.
Robert Broadbent, assistant secretary for water and science, neither confirmed nor denied a published report that selenium, the toxic element that forced the department to close a wildlife refuge in California earlier this year, has accumulated to dangerous levels in at least seven western states.
But he said that the department is "concerned" about the possibility of additional contamination from federal water-diversion projects.
"There are all kinds of toxic problems around the country we need to know about," Broadbent told the House Interior subcommittee on water and power resources.
"We don't know a lot about pesticides, about herbicides, about fertilizers and trace elements. We don't know how toxic they are."
The panel hastily rearranged its hearing schedule yesterday to question Broadbent about a series of reports in the Sacramento Bee that found high levels of selenium in samples from refuges and farm drains from South Dakota to California.
According to the newspaper, the samples contained average selenium concentrations nearly three times higher than the level that can trigger deformities and death in wildlife.
The newspaper also charged that Broadbent was holding up a major study of the problem.
The study had been ordered by Interior Secretary Donald Hodel in March when he shut down the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos, Calif.
High selenium levels in the refuge were poisoning and deforming thousands of waterfowl.
Scientists attributed the concentrations to drainage from farmlands in the western San Joaquin Valley, where irrigation water leached the element from the soil.
"We now have allegations that that study was not conducted and that the problems are far greater than the department wants to admit," subcommittee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) said.
"We can't have the government creating toxic waste and putting prime agricultural farmland at risk, and I have the feeling that's what's happening here."
Broadbent acknowledged that the study was not yet under way, but he denied suggestions that it was being delayed because of fears about government liability.
"First of all, we didn't know where we'd get the money," he said. "Second, we didn't know what to ask for [in the study]. We were hesitant to start on a program that wouldn't lead us to the answer."
Broadbent said that legal questions are still under review, but that the department expects the investigation to be launched in the next fiscal year.
"We're talking about a broad problem of how we look at toxics in general across the nation, and particularly in agriculture," he said.
But Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), whose district contains the Kesterson refuge and its surrounding farmlands, accused Broadbent of using his constituents as "guinea pigs."
Farmers in some portions of the western San Joaquin Valley face a cutoff of federal irrigation water next year unless some method is found to dispose of or treat the tainted drainage.
"You people didn't give my farmers five years to study something," Coelho said. "They're through next year. And all I hear from the department is they need more money to study."
Broadbent responded that Hodel's decision to close Kesterson was based on the question of whether department employes could be held criminally liable for the deaths of waterfowl there.
"It had nothing to do with wildlife habitat," he said. "It had nothing to do with farming. His was a strict liability decision."