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GENEVA SWATS AT FLEA METHOD OF TESTING WASTEWATER TOXICITY

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It's a simple test: Take some tiny water fleas and fathead minnows, put them in wastewater from Geneva Steel, and see how many die in two to four days.

If more than half die, Geneva gets an "F" in wastewater toxicity.The Environmental Protection Agency wants to include the test in a new discharge permit for Geneva, which would take effect in June 1992. Geneva officials agree their wastewater, which is discharged at the rate of 10 million gallons per day, should be tested for toxicity - but not with fleas and minnows.

EPA and Geneva officials will argue for and against use of the test before an EPA administrative law judge some time this year.

EPA officials say the 5-year-old test, officially known as a "whole effluent toxicity" or WET test, is a reliable, low-cost method of determining discharge toxicity.

"It is similar to the white rat test in the medical field," said Bob Burm, test coordinator for EPA Region 8. "The beauty of this test is it is much more of a real world test. If they live, it's OK. If they die, it's a problem." The fleas are barely visible in water, Burm said. The minnows are about the size of a hangnail.

"This test is the best thing to come along since 1972," Burm said.

The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 and made it illegal for wastes to be discharged into the nation's waterways without a permit.

Until now, permits have attempted to control toxicity by testing for individual pollutants; however, the tests do not always do a good job of considering the effect of combinations of pollutants in the total waste, says the EPA.

But the WET test does.

The test actually has two parts. The first part checks survival. The second part checks how well the fleas produce and the minnows grow in the discharge over a seven-day period.

Seventy-five entities in Region 8, which includes Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, are using the test, Burm said.

In Utah, entities that have agreed to use the test include Logan, Provo, Davis County Sanitation District, Philips 66 Refinery and the Utah Power and Light plant in Carbon County.

Only three entities - all in Utah - have challenged use of the test: Geneva, the Central Valley Sanitation District and Salt Lake City. Geneva's challenge is the first to reach the formal hearing process, Burm said.

Max Dodson, the EPA's Water Management Division director in Denver, said he doesn't understand Geneva's objections to the test when the company's own tests show its discharge is not toxic to aquatic life.

Geneva says because its discharge is not toxic EPA has no right to limit toxicity in the company's discharge permit.

Study data submitted by Geneva from 1986 through the first part of this year confirms the plant's claim.

"The question is not whether we should be tested but whether we should have a test of questionable replicability and measurement," said Mary Kay Lazarus, Geneva spokeswoman. "There are serious questions about how good the test is and what it really demonstrates. If we fail this test, we would be subject to a $25,000 per day penalty."

Company attorneys requested a hearing last November to resolve three issues: whether the test assesses actual effects on receiving water, whether it has a proven track record and whether there is "reasonable potential" for toxicity from Geneva's discharge.

Lazarus said if the administrative judge rules in favor of the EPA it is unlikely Geneva will challenge the ruling in court.